By 200 BC, the Chinese were already using a precursor to the modern firecracker: bamboo. Though completely unintentional, its name is pretty apt and onomatopaeic when you think about how 1) when placed into a fire, the pockets of air and sap trapped in its stem expand and cause an explosion (BAM!) and 2) the jarring sound was thought to be powerful enough to scare off the evil spirit Nian (BOO!), who the Chinese believed ate their crops and children. Roasting a few shoots of bamboo became a precautionary Lunar New Year tradition, which remained unchanged for almost a millennium. Then, ironically while trying to concoct an elixir of life, Chinese alchemists stumbled upon an early form of gunpowder (a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, charcoal and honey). They quickly used this discovery to upgrade their anti-Nian devices by inserting the concoction into bamboo stems, which inevitably led them to develop bombs, rockets and other pyro-weapons for their more pressing human adversaries, forever changing the ways of warfare.
Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant and explorer, is often credited for bringing fireworks to Europe when he returned home in 1292 from his 24-year road (and sea) trip in the East, and it was the Italians who transformed fireworks into a true art form: Not only did they perfect their aerial capacity through the invention of canisters that could be launched at high altitudes, but, during the Renaissance, Italians further developed fireworks to sustain their sparks and animate complex theatrical sets that were all the rage in royal courts across Europe. Fireworks became the ultimate sign of celebration and they were frequently called upon for weddings, coronations and even the end of plagues, as with the Festa del Redentore in Venice which is still celebrated with a fiery show in front of St. Mark’s Square every third Sunday of July. Through the years, fireworks became more obtainable for regular folk, and, with the first settlers, they arrived on the shores of the New World. On July 4, 1777, exactly one year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, fireworks were set off to boost the morale of the American patriots who were still fighting the Revolutionary War against the British. And, as John Adams foretold, “[The fourth of July] 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.”
But, wait! To think all this time these flashy light shows came in only two colors: orange and white. In the 1830s, fire masters in Naples realized that different metallic salts when added to the gun powder mixture would produce different colored bursts. How appropriate that the vibrant and brazen Neapolitans were the ones responsible for discovering how to finally cross over into a technicolor world of pyrotechnics. Other advancements have been made since then: new forms and colors, and, most recently, in 2004, the Walt Disney Company, the largest consumer of fireworks in the USA, developed a way to launch fireworks using compressed air instead of gunpowder and electronic timers to explode their shells, reducing excessive smoke and fumes for their big choreographed spectacles.
From pagan gods to scientists, from warfare to jumpin’ parties, from revolutionaries to Disney, and from one side of the world to the other—the history of fireworks covers it all. But, when I see their shimmering, streaming traces, something Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road comes to mind and I think of you, friends:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
Party on, friends! Evviva!