Origins of ordinary things: Fireworks

Fireworks mark celebrations all over the world and have, for centuries, been astounding audiences across the globe. They have been used all around the world every day in celebrations ranging from small private birthday parties to state sponsored events.

Epic fireworks defines a firework as a combustible and/or explosive device for producing a striking display of light and/or a loud noise.

Most historians think that fireworks were invented in China, though some argue that the original birthplace was in the Middle East or India.

Although it is still unclear exactly when fireworks were first invented, some think that fireworks first originated in China around 2,000 years ago. The most popular legend, according to Epic fireworks, has it that fireworks were discovered by accident when a Chinese cook working in a field kitchen happened to mix charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter (which were all common kitchen items at the time). The mixture burned and when compressed in an enclosed space, exploded.

The quality and performance of fireworks has changed a lot since their accidental discovery, and now take on many shapes, forms, and an almost infinite range of colours.

According to Smithsonian magazine a firework requires three key components: an oxidizer, a fuel and a chemical mixture to produce the color. The oxidizer breaks the chemical bonds in the fuel, releasing all of the energy that’s stored in those bonds. To ignite this chemical reaction, all you need is a bit of fire, in the form of a fuse or a direct flame.

Most often credited with the invention of firecrackers - about 1000 years ago - is a monk called Li Tian. He was from the city of Liuyang in Hunan Province, China. This area is still to this day the largest producer of fireworks anywhere in the world. During the Song Dynasty, a temple was built to worship Li Tian and the people of China still celebrate the invention of the firecracker every April 18th by offering sacrifices to Li Tian and setting off fireworks.

This “fire drug” (or huo yao in Chinese) became an integral part of Chinese cultural celebrations. Stuffing the aforementioned bamboo tubes with gunpowder created a sort of sparkler. It wasn’t long before military engineers used the explosive chemical concoction to their advantage. The first recorded use of gunpowder weaponry in China dates to 1046 and references a crude gunpowder catapult, according to Smithsonian magazine.

According to Imperial College, for nearly 2,000 years, the only colors fireworks could produce were yellows and oranges using steel and charcoal. It was only in the 19th Century that pyro technicians had the technology to introduce reds, greens and blues to the night sky.

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