From rockets to roman candles we’re spoilt for choice on fireworks today, and with a little creativity you can produce a totally unique firework display to follow almost any theme, be it a gender reveal, or a festival opening. But fireworks have come a long way since their beginnings in China where the very first fireworks were created using stems of bamboo. Find out a brief fireworks history in this article.
The very first fireworks were invented in China during the Song Dynasty, active from 960 to 1279.
The beginnings of the firework actually came about before this by chance as an alchemist combined charcoal, sulphur, and saltpetre to uncover a potion for immortality... or was it a cooking accident? The exact details of this earliest discovery of gunpowder vary from storyteller to storyteller. When thrown into the fire this concoction produced a primitive firework explosion.
As early as 200BC in the Han Dynasty, people would enjoy throwing segments of bamboo into the fire until they popped and cracked like firecrackers. Experimenting with adding charcoal, sulphur, and saltpetre power into bamboo segments resulted in the invention of the first fireworks almost a century later.
From this point onwards fireworks took off in China, eventually spreading across the whole world. People in the Song Dynasty developed the bamboo-segment firecrackers into tubes of rolled paper containing gunpowder and a fuse. The traditional firework was beginning to take shape. These firecrackers would often be attached to one long sheet called a bianpao (whip cannon) which would set off a series of consecutive firecrackers similar to a compound firework.
Fireworks were commonly seen at festivals, events and warfare from the 11th century onwards in China. Fireworks set off at weddings and religious festivals were thought to ward off evil spirits with their loud noises. Fireworks were adapted for war to fire arrows at the enemy and even propel rats through bamboo firecrackers towards the enemy as a form of psychological warfare.
Coloured fireworks were developed from the Chinese peoples’ knowledge of creating coloured smoke and fire through the use of chemical reactions. Some examples of chemicals added to low-nitrate gunpowder recipes were:
On a trip to China, Marco Polo transported knowledge of fireworks to the Middle East, which was then brought to England and Europe by The Crusaders. Fireworks came with the discovery of gunpowder when English scholar Roger Bacon identified saltpetre as the explosive force within a firework. He was able to delay this dangerous discovery for a number of years by writing his findings in code.
Once Bacon’s code was deciphered in 1560, chemists were able to play around with saltpetre and the proportions of a firework. Powerful explosives were created as a result. This changed warfare dramatically, putting an end to medieval ways of fighting and defending as bullets presented a much more powerful impact than a sword.
In addition to their contributions to battle, fireworks were also adopted for celebrations in Europe. The first instance of fireworks being used at an occasion in England was at the 1486 wedding of Henry VIII. Fireworks were also a favourite for bolstering theatrical productions to create excitement and atmosphere amongst the audience. The original Globe Theatre’s fateful fiery end can be attributed to the misuse of fireworks.
The Italians can be credited with using creativity and experimentation to push the development of fireworks onwards, creating bigger, brighter and more colourful explosions attracting the attention of high society and royals throughout Europe. In 1740, King Louis XV of France employed the famed Italian team the Rugieri Brothers. The Brothers were instructed to use their expertise to create a never before seen magnificent display at the Palais de Versailles for the wedding of Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette which included 20,000 rockets and 6,000 mortars to light up the night sky for miles around.
In 1786, alchemists in Europe were able to produce brighter, more vivid colours with the oxidisation of certain elements including barium, potassium chlorate, strontium, copper, and sodium. Isolating metallic magnesium and aluminium also provided a vibrant silvery-white light that we see in many fireworks today.
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