Because we obviously needed something else to keep us up at night in 2020, there’s a global fireworks crisis heckling big cities and small towns alike this summer. It seems like wherever you are, fireworks are set off all through the night, every night. Where people are getting these large stores of fireworks, and how they aren’t getting caught lighting explosives that are illegal in most places in the U.S. for personal use, we have no idea, but the situation is fraught with conspiracy theories and really scared dogs.
During one of the nights I was lying awake, listening to the pops and hisses from my neighborhood’s own nightly fireworks show, I thought to myself, “There isn’t even anything to celebrate right now!” which also got me thinking, “Huh, why are fireworks so closely linked to celebrations, anyway?
It started a very long time ago in Asia, as most historians agree that what we know of as fireworks today were originally created in Liuyang, China in the second century B.C. These “firecrackers” were really just bamboo stalks that would explode with a nice, loud bang when thrown into a fire due to the hollow pockets of air overheating within the stalks -- the invention of fireworks, like most things, was an accident. From there, Chinese alchemists developed a mixture in 800 A.D. using potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal that would then be inserted into tissue paper-made fuses to be exploded.
The Chinese believed that these exploding poppers would ward off evil spirits, which is how they began setting them off at celebratory events: births, weddings, coronations, the works.
It was from this crude mixture, though, that gunpowder was made. When it started being used in rocket cannons and other weapons, we figured out that aerial explosions were kind of cool. So, weaponry and fireworks were sort of developed side by side. The chemistry evolved, making its way to Europe, where it was used by the military as well as for King Henry VII’s birthday, and then over to America with none other than Captain John Smith. It’s Smith who’s credited with lighting the first fireworks in the States in Jamestown circa 1608.
Independence Day on July 4 is probably the celebratory event most synonymous with fireworks in America these days, which is mainly because they were popped off in the early celebrations of the Revolutionary War. Now, you probably know from middle school history class that July 4 is a vaguely arbitrary date in the first place, since the vote for independence from Britain happened on the 2nd, a draft was revised on the 3rd and most delegates didn’t even end up signing until August.
Nevertheless, our Founding Fathers celebrated in early July, and on the country’s first anniversary a year later, they had a right party filled with fireworks -- but only orange ones, as the sparkles and colors weren’t a thing yet. The Italians were the ones to have the grand idea to add metals like strontium or barium to the powder to create colors out of these skybound explosions.
Now, though, it’s obvious that lighting fireworks has become way more of a silly hobby than symbolic of anything. But still, we’re creatures of habit, and Independence Day means nighttime light shows -- so maybe that means we’ll all be able to get some sleep after this week.