The fascinating story of fireworks.
By Juddi Morris
“Ooh,” breathes the crowd of spellbound people. The dark night bursts with dazzling light, and arcs of glittering color rocket overhead. An eruption of colored stars transforms into an American flag shape, and thunderous explosions reverberate across the sky. Little kids snuggle up to their parents, and families move closer together on their blankets spread upon the grassy hillside.
What would the Fourth of July be without a fireworks show? Pyrotechnic displays are as American as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, and apple pie and baseball, but how did fireworks come about?
Historians say that by A.D. 1040 the Chinese had learned to make gunpowder, the basic ingredient of fireworks, which they formed into “fire pills” — a forerunner of the firecracker. Most early fireworks were repurposed military munitions, fired for entertainment rather than to frighten or kill the enemy.
Legend has it that Marco Polo brought gunpowder from China to Europe in the late 1200s. Three hundred years later, pyrotechnics had become the most popular way to celebrate special events on that continent.
Of course, today’s fireworks displays are far more sophisticated and usually follow a pattern. This Fourth of July, when you celebrate the birthday of the United States, here are a few tips on recognizing some basic aerial shell patterns.
Shells are explosive fireworks that are shot into the air from mortars sunk into the ground or held securely in place by other means. Most shells that burst in a round pattern fanning out from the center are Oriental. European and American shells form a more uneven pattern, and their colors last longer.
- A chrysanthemum shell bursts open in a closely knit pattern of stars, continuing to hold its round shape before fading.
- A weeping willow shell resembles its namesake. The “branches” are streams of color-producing stars, which contain charcoal. This charcoal produces an orange fire that lasts a long time, like the charcoal fire in an outdoor grill.
- A peony shell forms a loose pattern of colored stars, which breaks up and droops downward.
- Rocket shells are propelled upward by gases.
- Hammer or whistle shells get their names from the sound produced by gas escaping through a special tunnel opening in the shell. Like any wind instrument, a whistle can be tuned by the fireworks maker. Hammer shells whizz and hum; whistle shells produce high-pitched screeching sounds.
- A red-tipped comet shell opens with a ring of red stars, followed by streams of glitter.
- The finale shells, shot by the dozens, are used to provide a dramatic finish to the show.
When we observe the United States’ birthday, we’re following a tradition that John Adams foresaw more than 220 years ago. Writing to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, the patriot predicted that the next day would be “the 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 . . . with pomp and parade . . . bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore,” he noted.
So, from the spectacular display of fireworks over the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital to thousands more staged in most every town across the country, we are still celebrating John Adams’ idea of “bonfires and illuminations.”
Wouldn’t this great patriot be pleased?
- The Wizard of Oz, filmed in 1939, was the first movie to use colored fireworks for special effects.
- $2 million was spent on the fireworks show to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Twenty tons of fireworks were detonated from 44 barges during the 28-minute display.
- Fireworks is the name of a town in Massachusetts.
- New Castle, Pennsylvania, calls itself the Fireworks capital of the United States, for it is home to major U.S. fireworks manufacturing companies.
- Former politician Jesse Ventura is said to spend more than $1,000 on fireworks each Fourth of July.
- Fireworks can protect lives. Trains, trucks, and cross-country buses carry fuses or red flares that can be placed behind stalled vehicles to prevent collisions. Airplanes carry parachute flares to light up the ground for forced landings at night.
- The longest-ever string of firecrackers was ignited to celebrate the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong in 1996. The explosions, from beginning to end, lasted 22 hours.