by Holly Hartman
For hundreds of years, even before Francis Scott Key wrote of seeing "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air," people have been awed by the bright lights and big noise of fireworks. The ancient Chinese used fireworks at festivities and to frighten enemies in battle. Captain John Smith set them off in Jamestown in 1608, enjoying a bit of English popular entertainment and impressing Native Americans.
Legend has it that the Chinese made the first fireworks in the 800s, filling bamboo shoots with gunpowder and exploding them at the New Year with the hope that the sound would scare away evil spirits. According to tradition, Marco Polo brought this technology back to Europe.
It's fair to say, however, that the origins of fireworks are shrouded in smoke; the China story is widespread, and possibly true, but fireworks may in fact have developed in India or the Arab world. Fireworks became known in Europe during the 1300s, probably after returning Crusaders brought them from the East.
By the 1400s Florence, Italy, was the center of fireworks manufacturing. At this time fireworks were just one effect in a celebration rather than its focus. At religious festivals Italians made plaster figures that spewed fireworks from their eyes and mouths. The 1533 coronation parade for Anne Boleyn included a papier-mache dragon that belched fire.
During the 1700s displays became more elaborate and were popular with European royalty. French king Louis XV ordered extravagant displays of fireworks at Versailles, and Russian czar Peter the Great put on a five-hour show after the birth of his son. Meanwhile, in the American colonies settlers used fireworks to mark happy occasions.
Early fireworks were enjoyed more for the sound than the show—in its simplest forms gunpowder explodes quickly, leaving a terrific bang but not much to see other than a rather brief golden glow. Over time people discovered that using chemical compounds with greater amounts of oxygen made the explosives burn brighter and longer.
The multi-hued displays we know now began in the 1830s, when Italians added trace amounts of metals that burn at high temperatures, creating beautiful colors. Other additives also produced interesting effects. For example, calcium deepens colors, titanium makes sparks, and zinc creates smoke clouds.
Armed with this knowledge, some aficionados enjoy trying to create their own fireworks. But these creations are even more dangerous and unpredictable than legal fireworks. Because homemade fireworks are often made from parts of other fireworks, they can contain deadly amounts of explosive powders.
In 2013, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 11,400 fireworks-related emergency-room visits—65% of these occurred June 21–July 21. And there's no tally of the countless blistered hands, traumatized pets, singed shrubs, and melted G.I. Joe dolls. Experts recommend leaving the fireworks spectacle to the professionals and limiting your flame-tending interests to the barbecue.