When Were Fireworks Introduced?
The use of fireworks, or pyrotechnics, probably began when some prehistoric man mixed saltpetere (potassium nitrate) from his cooking with charcoal from his fire. Saltpetere is a pyrotechnic composition – a substance which does not need oxygen from the air in order to burn, but instead supplies it. Two more such compositions are potassium chlorate and potassium perchlorate. These are combined with finely ground gunpowder, sulphur, aluminum dust and many other chemicals to produce force and sparks, or white or colored flame. Other substances produce noise, smoke and other effects.
It is believed that fireworks were used in the East, especially China and India, for centuries before they spread to Europe. The Chinese fired pyrotechnic war missiles and produced dazzling displays of fireworks for ceremonial occasions. Such important events and festivities as Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival were and still are times when fireworks are guaranteed sights. China is the largest manufacturer and exporter of fireworks in the world. Arabia, in the 7th century, also used pyrotechnics in war. In the 14th Century came the invention of gunpowder, a pyrotechnic mixture of saltpetere, charcoal (carbon) and sulphur.
The earliest documentation of fireworks dates back to 7th century China (time of the Tang Dynasty), where they were invented. The fireworks were used to accompany many festivities. It is thus a part of the culture of China and had its origin there; eventually it spread to other cultures and societies. The art and science of firework making has developed into an independent profession. In China, pyrotechnicians were respected for their knowledge of complex techniques in mounting firework displays. Chinese people originally believed that the fireworks could expel evil spirits and bring about luck and happiness.
During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), many of the common people could purchase various kinds of fireworks from market vendors, and grand displays of fireworks were also known to be held. In 1110, a large fireworks display in a martial demonstration was held to entertain Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125) and his court. A record from 1264 states that a rocket-propelled firework went off near the Empress Dowager Gong Sheng and startled her during a feast held in her honor by her son Emperor Lizong of Song (r. 1224–1264). Rocket propulsion was common in warfare, as evidenced by the Huolongjing compiled by Liu Bowen (1311–1375) and Jiao Yu (fl. c. 1350–1412). In 1240 the Arabs acquired knowledge of gunpowder and its uses from China. A Syrian named Hasan al-Rammah wrote of rockets, fireworks, and other incendiaries, using terms that suggested he derived his knowledge from Chinese sources, such as his references to fireworks as “Chinese flowers”.
With the development of chinoiserie in Europe, Chinese fireworks began to gain popularity around the mid-17th century. Lev Izmailov, ambassador of Peter the Great, once reported from China: “They make such fireworks that no one in Europe has ever seen.” In 1758, the Jesuit missionary Pierre Nicolas le Chéron d’Incarville, living in Beijing, wrote about the methods and composition on how to make many types of Chinese fireworks to the Paris Academy of Sciences, which revealed and published the account five years later. His writings would be translated in 1765, resulting in the popularization of fireworks and further attempts to uncover the secrets of Chinese fireworks.
Spectacular firework displays in celebration of victory or peace became popular during the 17th Century. Color was introduced into the entertainment in the 19th Century through the use of potassium chlorate, which was first prepared by Claude Louis Berthollet (1748-1822). Later magnesium and aluminum was employed to make fireworks still more brilliant. Every year displays are given to mark such widely different occasions as the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the British Parliament, and Independence Day celebrations in the United States.