The History of Fireworks
Many of us are brought up to celebrate our country’s independence with a dazzling fireworks display. Throughout Virginia you can find a multitude of fireworks shows from one town to the next. If you’re wondering where are the best fireworks near me, click here for a list of shows throughout the state.
Fireworks have an interesting history. Most scholars believe the origins of fireworks began in China as early as 200 B.C., when the Chinese stumbled upon a natural firecracker by roasting bamboo, which then exploded when heated because of hollow air pockets (kids, don’t do this at home!). These “fireworks” were used to ward off evil spirits.
Between 600 and 900 A.D., the Chinese mixed saltpeter, charcoal, sulfur and other ingredients, and to form an early type of gunpowder. They then began stuffing the substance into bamboo shoots that were thrown into the fire to produce a loud blast.
At some point paper tubes replaced bamboo stalks, and by the 10th century, the Chinese discovered the firecracker could do more than ward off evil spirits – it could ward off evil adversaries! These crude bombs were crafted by attaching firecrackers to arrows, thereby somewhat efficiently taking down their enemies in military battles. Two hundred years later, they learned how to shoot them in the air, resulting in the first rockets.
By the 13th century, gunpowder began making its way into Europe and Arabia, by way of diplomats, explorers and believe it or not, Franciscan missionaries. The western world became enthralled with making the gunpowder even more potent, building powerful weapons like cannons and guns.Meanwhile, the celebratory side of gunpowder—fireworks—became increasingly popular in commemorating military victories and to enhance public celebrations. In medieval England, fireworks experts were known as firemasters. Their assistants, called “green men” because they wore caps of leaves to protect their heads, doubled as jesters, entertaining the crowd with jokes as they prepared the displays. It was a dangerous profession however, with many green men dying or suffering serious injuries when explosions went wrong.
By the Renaissance era, pyrotechnic schools were training firework artists across Europe, particularly in Italy, which became famous for its elaborate and colorful displays. It was the Italians who became the first to incorporate small amounts of metals and other additives, to create the bright, multi-colored sparks and sunbursts seen in today’s fireworks shows.
Fireworks gained a strong following among European rulers, who used them to enchant their subjects and illuminate their castles. In England, the earliest recorded display took place on Henry VII’s wedding day in 1486. In 1685, James II’s royal firemaster produced such a dazzling display for the king’s coronation that he received a knighthood. French kings put on spectacular displays at Versailles and other palaces, while Czar Peter the Great of Russia arranged a five-hour pyrotechnic extravaganza to mark the birth of his son.
Europeans brought their knowledge and appreciation of fireworks to the New World. According to legend, Captain John Smith set off the first display in Jamestown in 1608.
On July 3, 1776, the day before the Declaration of Independence was adopted, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife in which he predicted the role of fireworks in Fourth of July celebrations. “The day will be most memorable in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade…bonfires and illuminations …from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
It is important to note that nearly 11,000 Americans were hurt by fireworks in 2016. For tips on firework safety visit and have a safe and happy Fourth of July from Rio Car Wash!
*This article was written with assistance from history.com.