Fireworks, like potato chips and many other things we enjoy today, are legend to have been originally created by accident. The legend starts in China with a cook who was working in a test kitchen. He mixed charcoal, sulphur and saltpeper. The mixture burned and exploded, and created what we know of today as fireworks. Other sources hypothesized that that fireworks were invented in India, but the Chinese were officially credited with the creation of gunpowder, which likely lead to the creation for fireworks.
The first fireworks were firecrackers, according to Colin Bradley of pyrouniverse.com. They were created even before gunpowder in China during the Hung dynasty around 200 BC. They were chucks of green bamboo that were thrown into the fire when other supplies were running short. The pockets of air trapped inside the bamboo expanded and exploded with the bam we now associate with fireworks. This bam scared the animals and people alike. They figured that since the noise scared the living so much that it would have the same effect on spirits as well. This is why fireworks are a traditional part of the new years celebrations. The Chinese started throwing the bamboo on the a fire at the Lunar New Year to scare evil spirits away, especially one called Nian, who supposedly made his dinner out of people and crops. They believed that scaring these spirits away in the New Year with a bamboo firecracker would bring prosperity throughout the year. This form of firecracker was used in China for a thousand years.
While the Chinese created the concept of fireworks, it was the Italians who perfected it. In 1292 the Italians began their obsession with fireworks when Marco Polo brought firecrackers back from a trip to China. It was not until the 1400s, during the European Renaissance, that they developed fireworks into what we know them as today.
The Italians used powered metals and charcoal to create gold and yellow and developed aerial shells that made it possible for fireworks to shoot into the sky; but the best fireworks they made remained on the ground. Ground fireworks were so spectacular that Kings used them to reflect their wealth and power at festivals, weddings and coronation ceremonies.
From 1500 though 1700 these firework displays only grew more intricate and spectacular. Sometimes fireworks were set on floats in water because more noise and light could be reflected to the audience. One type of popular fireworks were shaped like a dragon and the fireworks were placed so that when lighted they flew out of the dragons mouth to stimulate fames. These dragons even battled each other; the one who caught on fire first was the loser.
With the discovery of the quick match in England, which enabled firemasters the ability to light many at once, fireworks moved away from entertainment of royalty to the entertainment of the public during massive displays. People though out Europe came to England to see these huge displays.
Today's fireworks, unlike the original firecracker made in China, are very complex. Most fireworks have four main components; an oxygen-producer, color producer, fuel and binding. The oxygen-producer expands when given the fuel and with the color producer, explodes from the binding.
There are two kinds of fireworks, incandescence, which are produced from heat, and luminescence, which are produced from other energy sources. Incandescence fireworks use heat to manipulate the sparks into colors. Usually metals such as aluminum, magnesium and titanium are used for this kind of firework because they burn very brightly. Luminescence fireworks are called cold light, because unlike incandescence fireworks they can be explode at room temperature. The process of creating luminescence fireworks is even more complicated than incandescence ones. In this process energy is taken from a molecule, which are absorbed by an atom, creating a higher, less stable energy state. When these electrons move back to the lower energy state the energy form into visible light. Salt solutions are used to manipulate the color of the spark.
From the Hung Dynasty to today, fireworks have taken the breaths of people around the world away for thousands of years. Fireworks have come a long way from the accidentally bamboo long ago.
Fireworks University: History of Fireworks
B.J. Alan Company
History of Fireworks
Chemistry of Fireworks: Firework Color Production & List of Colorants
Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.
Chemical of the Week: Fireworks