History of fireworks

independence, fireworks, Fourth of July, 4th of July
The 4th of July was celebrated as our Independence Day in 1777. (Image credit: Alexey Stiop | Dreamstime.com)

Today, fireworks mark celebrations all over the world. From ancient China to the New World, fireworks have evolved considerably. The very first fireworks — gunpowder firecrackers — came from humble beginnings and didn't do much more than pop, but modern versions can create shapes, multiple colors and various sounds. 

How fireworks work

Before diving into the history of fireworks, it is important to understand how they work. Each modern firework consists of an aerial shell. This is a tube that contains gunpowder and dozens of small pods. Each of the pods is called a "star." These stars measure about 1 to 1.5 inches (3 to 4 centimeters) in diameter, according to the American Chemical Society (ACA), and hold:

  • Fuel
  • An oxidizing agent
  • A binder 
  • Metal salts or metal oxides for color

A firework also has a fuse that is lit to ignite the gunpowder. Each star makes one dot in the fireworks explosion. When the colorants are heated, their atoms absorb energy and then produce light as they lose excess energy. Different chemicals produce different amounts of energy, creating different colors. 

For example, when sodium nitrate is heated, electrons in the sodium atoms absorb the energy and get excited. As the electrons come down from the high, they release their energy, about 200 kilojoules per mole (a unit of measurement for chemical substances), or the energy of yellow light, according to the website of the University of Wisconsin-Madison chemistry professor Bassam Z. Shakhashiri. [How Do Fireworks Get Their Colors?]

According to the ACA, this is how some fireworks colors are made:

  • Blues are made with copper-chloride compounds.
  • Reds are made with strontium salts, strontium carbonate and lithium salts.
  • Purple is made with a mix of blue-producing copper compounds and red-producing strontium compounds.
  • Orange is created with calcium salts and calcium chloride.
  • Green is made with barium chloride and other barium compounds. 

The beginning of fireworks

Most historians think that fireworks were invented in China, though some argue that the original birthplace was in the Middle East or India. We do know that somewhere around A.D. 800, Chinese alchemists mixed together saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal and created a crude gunpowder, according to the American Pyrotechnics Safety and Education Foundation. This wasn't what they were aiming for. They were actually looking for a recipe for eternal life, but what they created changed the world anyway. Once they realized what they had made, the Chinese came to believe that these explosions would keep evil spirits away.

To create some of the first fireworks, they would pack the new gunpowder into bamboo shoots and throw the shoots into a fire, which created a loud blast. After this, fireworks evolved. Paper tubes replaced bamboo stalks, for example, and instead of throwing the tubes in a fire, people added fuses made from tissue paper. 

By the 10th century, the Chinese had figured out that they could make bombs with the gunpowder, and so they attached firecrackers to arrows that they shot at enemies. Within the next 200 years, fireworks were honed into rockets that could be fired at enemies without the help of an arrow. This technology is still used today in firework shows.

The spread of gunpowder 

In 1295, Marco Polo brought fireworks to Europe from Asia. (However, Europeans likely were introduced to gunpowder weaponry during the Crusades a few years earlier, according to the Smithsonian.) Then, around the 13th century, gunpowder and the recipes to create it made their way to Europe and Arabia via other diplomats, explorers and Franciscan missionaries, according to the Smithsonian. From there, the West developed the technology into more-powerful weapons that we know today as cannons and muskets. People in the West still retained the original idea of fireworks, though, and used them during celebrations. Jesters would also entertain crowds with fireworks in medieval England.

In England, rulers used fireworks displays to entertain their followers. The first royal fireworks display is thought to have taken place on Henry VII's wedding day in 1486. In 1685, James II's coronation presentation was so amazing that it earned the fire master a knighthood. Not to be outdone, Czar Peter the Great of Russia put on a 5-hour fireworks show to mark the birth of his son.

Learning the art of explosions

During the Renaissance, pyrotechnic schools were popping up across Europe, according to History.com. The schools taught eager students how to create elaborate explosions. In Italy, fireworks were particularly popular, and in the 1830s, people in that country incorporated trace amounts of metals and other ingredients to enhance the brightness and to make creative shapes. 

They also finally developed more colors for fireworks. Up until then, all fireworks were orange. The Italians created mixtures with various chemicals, producing fireworks displays that are much closer to modern versions. They used strontium for red, barium for green, copper for blue and sodium for yellow.

Journey to the New World 

As Europeans traveled to the New World, so did their fireworks recipes. Some say that Capt. John Smith set off the first American display, in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608, according to History.com. On July 4, 1777, the first anniversary of the day the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, fireworks became a Fourth of July tradition. 

The year before, John Adams wrote in a letter, "The day will be 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. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade … bonfires and illuminations [fireworks] … from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore." His prediction was right, and the tradition continued in 1777 and every year since then.

Not everyone liked fireworks, however, Because of some shenanigans, in 1731, Rhode Island outlawed the use of fireworks for "mischievous ends," according to the Smithsonian. In the 1890s, other states and some cities created regulations to control how and where fireworks could be used. Today, many towns and states still have their own laws governing the use of fireworks. 

Still in the fireworks business, China produces and exports more fireworks than any other country in the world, according to History.com.

Additional resources

Alina Bradford
Live Science Contributor
Alina Bradford is a contributing writer for Live Science. Over the past 16 years, Alina has covered everything from Ebola to androids while writing health, science and tech articles for major publications. She has multiple health, safety and lifesaving certifications from Oklahoma State University. Alina's goal in life is to try as many experiences as possible. To date, she has been a volunteer firefighter, a dispatcher, substitute teacher, artist, janitor, children's book author, pizza maker, event coordinator and much more.