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Fireworks: The History and the Science

How did we get fireworks and why are they used to mark special occasions?

By:  |  December 27, 2021  |    618 Words
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(Photo by J. Conrad Williams, Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images)

In America, fireworks are most famously used to celebrate Independence Day. However, the loud booms and colorful lights are associated with nearly any celebration or holiday – most especially bringing in the New Year. Along with a kiss from your sweetie (or your mom), performing an “Auld Lang Syne” music session, and making resolutions for the new year, fireworks may be a part of the festivities.

When Were Fireworks First Discovered?

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Lunar new year celebrations in China (Photo by Chan Kiu/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Fireworks originated in Liuyang, China, over 2,000 years ago! When thrown into a fire, bamboo stalks would explode and make a loud bang. The Chinese believed that they could ward off evil spirits by burning and exploding the bamboo. When the first gunpowder was invented years later, it was added to the bamboo stalks. The combination of materials came to be known as firecrackers or fireworks. Today, firecrackers are still used in China to repel evil spirits and bring good luck – but they are used for the noise, and rarely include the eye-catching displays that Americans are used to seeing.

It’s thought that gunpower made its way across the world through the ancient trading roads. Others suggest it first appeared in Europe after being discovered in the 1400s by a German monk and alchemist called Berthold Schwarz. Either way, by the 15th century, Europeans were manufacturing the awe-inducing displays of light and fire.

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Portrait of Berthold Schwarz inventing gunpowder. Engraving from “Sciences populaires,” 1880.(Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

It became widespread to see fireworks used as entertainment for different celebrations. Europeans took fireworks with them as they settled America. A fireworks show was part of the first Independence Day celebration, and they are still used today.

Fireworks on New Year’s Eve

New Year’s celebrations are all about ringing in the new year in the best way possible. The idea is to leave all the negatives behind and embrace a new and positive outlook on life. Since fireworks were believed to scare away evil spirits, they were a perfect addition to New Year’s festivities.

How Do Fireworks Work?

So how do modern fireworks work? A mixture of gun powder and potassium nitrate causes the explosion, and the colors are made by burning metal salts. A firework with several different colors means that multiple types of metals are used inside.

The different patterns and shapes seen in the blast make fireworks even more fascinating to watch. A firework has several packed compartments to create the designs, each exploding at different times. The compartments are packed around the central gun powder in specific patterns to make the shapes and designs.

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Making fireworks at Brock’s Firework Factory, 1937 (Photo by Daily Herald Archive/National Science & Media Museum/SSPL via Getty Images)

Interesting Facts About Fireworks

  • The first time fireworks were used in England was at a royal wedding.
  • Shakespeare loved fireworks.
  • Many fireworks are named after flowers, such as the “peony,” the “dahlia,” and the “chrysanthemum.”
  • The largest-ever fireworks display included 810,914 fireworks.
  • The largest consumer of fireworks is Disney.
  • Thunder Over Louisville, a fireworks show in Kentucky, generates over $56 million for the local community.
  • European rulers loved to use fireworks to illuminate their beautiful castles and to captivate their subjects.
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(Photo by Wendell Teodoro/Getty Images)

As an overall symbol of celebration and joyfulness, fireworks have become a fun and exciting addition to merrymaking of all kinds. The loud booms, bright colors, and beautiful shapes and patterns have gained adoring audiences worldwide.

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