Once just simple incendiary devices, reworks have become a spectacular staple of celebratory displays. Here’s how humanity has lit up the sky through the ages. By Amanda Green
It starts with a big bang. Bamboo thrown on a fire in China explodes as air expands inside the reeds, and rudimentary firecrackers are born. Locals decide they should be used to scare away evil spirits.
AD 600 to 900
Things get pyrotechnical when a Chinese alchemist combines sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal, and sets it on fire. The more oxygen-rich the saltpetre, the bigger the explosion. Soon the Chinese pack powder, rocks and metal into containers to make weapons.
Marco Polo brings fireworks to Europe from the Orient. (Also: porcelain, jewels, spices and other less exciting items that don’t go boom.)
1400 to 1500
The Renaissance begets unparalleled advances in art, literature – and fireworks. The Italians launch projectiles and burn powdered metals and charcoal slowly in open tubes to create sparklers. Controlled fires become de rigueur at coronations. Commoners miss out on the fun.
Guy Fawkes was a member of a group of Catholic revolutionaries who planned to carry out the infamous Gunpowder Plot (in essence, by blowing up Parliament and everyone in it, including King James I). The plot was discovered just in time, and the conspirators were arrested (Fawkes and eight others suffered a rather messy end). Ever since, we have celebrated 5 November by building bonfires, lighting fireworks and (more rarely) burning effigies of Fawkes.
John Bate publishes the four-part book series, The Mysteries of Nature and Art. In part two, he outlines how to create flying dragons, along with other fiery spectacles. Among those the book inspires: a young Sir Isaac Newton.
Powder to the people! In England, fireworks shows become public spectacles for everyone to enjoy. Colonists bring them to the Americas, where they set them off on Independence Day 1777 and think, “Hey, maybe we should do this again next year”.
Italian pyrotechnicians add colour to fireworks with chlorinated powder and metallic salts (strontium = red, barium = green, copper = blue, sodium = yellow). Using potassium chlorate as an oxidiser makes the hues brighter.
Cherry bombs, first used as weapons during the American Civil War, are banned in the US. But until his death in 1978, Keith Moon, drummer of the Who, blows off steam – and blows up hotel toilets – with illegal cherry bombs.
1956 (AND BEYOND)
Introduced 56 years ago, with additional rules imposed by local authorities, South Africa’s Explosives Act No 26 makes it unlawful to discharge any fireworks in any building, on any public thoroughfare or in any public place without written permission from the local authority. The law is especially tough on people who allow children to discharge fireworks, while the SPCA (among others) takes a dim view of the traumatic effects on animals.
Disney World launches fireworks with compressed air instead of gunpowder at Epcot’s pyrotechnic spectacular IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. Disney is the largest US consumer of fireworks, making its theme parks the “happiest places on Earth” for American pyromaniacs.
The Chinese Olympic Committee admits that CGI was used to enhance fireworks footprints that appeared to walk across the sky for TV audiences and fans watching the Beijing stadium’s Jumbotron. The New York-based Grucci family, who created the actual display, is not amused.
Pop singer Katy Perry releases the empowering single, “Firework”, reportedly inspired by a passage from Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel, On the Road.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who… burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”