We’re accustomed to commemorating national holidays and ringing in each New Year with big, impressive fireworks shows. But have you ever wondered how this dangerous, artistic light show came to be?
The most primitive form of pyrotechnics emerged as early as 200 B.C. in China. People there discovered a natural firecracker in bamboo, which explodes with a loud bang when heated. A technology much closer to our modern devices didn’t come about until the seventh century A.D., when Chinese alchemists accidentally created gunpowder by mixing sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter. When people stuffed this mixture into a bamboo shoot, then tossed the shoot onto fire, it produced a bang and a flash. Voila: fireworks were born.
Over the next few centuries, the Chinese refined this crude new technology, stuffing explosives into paper tubes, making bombs out of gunpowder, and even developing the first basic rockets. These were mainly used against enemies in battle, but were slowly incorporated into celebrations of military victories and religious ceremonies. A profession developed around this technology, with early pyrotechnicians developing more elaborate shows and techniques.
As different cultures started synthesizing their own gunpowder, pyrotechnic devices started to spring up around the world. In medieval England, pyrotechnicians were dubbed “firemasters,” and developed light shows for public entertainment. By the time of the Renaissance, schools existed across Europe to teach aspiring fireworks artists their craft.
Europeans brought their technology and techniques with them when they ventured to the New World. There’s evidence of a display in Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s, among other records of colonial pyromania. After America broke away from Great Britain in 1776, firework displays took place all year long to commemorate the young nation’s independence.
It wasn’t until 1830 that Italians used new combinations of metals to create the kind of multicolored blasts we’re familiar with today. Firework clubs, associations, festivals and competitions started occurring around the world, with participants dazzling audiences with rockets, waterfalls, Catherine Wheels and other innovative devices and techniques.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. With a spate of amateurs setting off rockets and firecrackers, regulation couldn’t be far behind. Concerned U.S. citizens in the 1890s formed the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, targeting pyrotechnicians and their “peace-disturbing” devices. This set a precedent for the tight regulations on explosive devices that exist today.
We’ve come a long way since the days of bamboo shoots and gunpowder. In 2014, a display in Dubai broke the Guinness World Record for largest fireworks show. Over 500,000 devices were set off along a 58-mile stretch of coastline to ring in the New Year, creating a massive, breathtaking show that incorporated many of Dubai’s landmarks.