POP POP POP! A Sparkly History of Fireworks

Where are my fellow Californians at? It’s a crazy place, we know, even when we aren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. Especially in Los Angeles where I live. Between crowds, traffic, and overall LA crazy, there isn’t much peace and quiet to be had. And this year has seen a significant uptick in noise because of a very particular problem – fireworks.

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It wasn’t just the 4th of July, although that proved to be quite a spectacle. Covid saw the cancellation of all the city’s official shows. But that didn’t stop pyro enthusiasts, professional or otherwise, from blazing up the night sky with flashes and booms. The minute the sun went down, the fireworks went up, and they didn’t stop all night. Our neighborhood sounded like Flanders in the First World War. My husband and I watched from our windows, and said our prayers more than once, when our neighbors fired off some top-shelf explosives from their balcony. So many Angelinos went nuts with fireworks that the Los Angeles air, already nothing to boast of, was declared the most polluted in the world on July 5.

California Fireworks aren’t exclusive to the July holiday either. Not this year. Ever since Memorial Day at least, distant thuds and bangs have kept our neighborhood alert and awake. Flares screech from the yards of our neighbors and put the fear of God into our fuzzy felines. Residents across the City of Angels have complained of the noise nuisance. The fire departments are also stretched thin by the several life-threatening blazes from irresponsible firework users. Police have even begun confiscating contraband fireworks by the truck load.

So, what’s the deal? I’ve read many articles on the subject, and they seem to sum up California’s 2020 firework problem to an easy source – boredom. Confined to our homes for the better part of the year, Angelinos and other Golden State residents are getting restless. So, when the professional-grade fireworks from canceled shows flooded the firework internet market, they proved a wonderful antidote to the stifling quarantine boredom, fines and fire hazards be damned.

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While I’ve been a long-time admirer of fireworks (I always had a healthy stockpile on hand when I lived in the Midwest), even I have grown weary with the constant noise. And since continued social distancing regulations have left me with little to do but sit around my apartment and think, I started wondering where all this noise came from. With the distant fizzles and pops to keep me company, I opened my computer and began to investigate.

Most sources I found agree that fireworks first originated in China sometime in the second century B.C. In an effort to ward off evil spirits, these ancient Chinese threw bamboo stalks into big fires. The flames ignited the hollow air pockets, which created big noises and dazzling showers of sparks.

Several hundred years later, specifically around 800 A.D., a Chinese alchemist gave people the startle of a lifetime when he packed a hollow bamboo stick with potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal. A dicey little mix we’ve come to know as “gunpowder.” The big boom hailed the era of manmade fireworks, and soon, Chinese people were delighted to pack paper tubes with the black powdery mix.

As a species, we humans have always been drawn to fire and things that go boom, so the fireworks caught on fast. Thanks to the likes of Marco Polo and other diplomats, explorers, and missionaries, gun powder in both its violent and firework form spread around the world like wildfire (see what I did there). The first major European displays are dated back to the 13th century. Henry VII got credit for the first European royal firework show when, in 1486, he shot off some impressive pyro tricks at his wedding. By the 15th century, fireworks had become a common means of entertaining people at religious festivals and public venues alike. James II’s coronation in 1685 saw a show so splendid that it earned its performer a knighthood. Czar Peter the Great of Russia wowed his royal crowds with a whopping five hour display when his son entered the world.

Given the craze around them, it was inevitable that fireworks made their way to the New World, and they only got more elaborate as the years passed. By the time of the American Revolution, pyro goodies were a sensation, and they became the center piece of the very first Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1777. Ever since, fireworks have been a staple of summer in America.

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Along the way, we fire-loving humans decided to mix the entertaining explosives with our growing bank of science knowledge. The modern era’s plethora of research in particle physics, rockets, and chemistry has evolved firework displays to elaborate creations of specific shapes, colors, and patterns.

In their simpler forms, most modern-day fireworks are made from aerial shells packed with dozens of pods (or “stars”). Each “star” is treated with chemicals, metal salts, and oxides to give them particular colors (most commonly red, green, and white) and attributes (fizzly sounds, big booms, etc). When the outer shell rockets up and explodes, the particles in the star pods are heated, and they release energy according to their chemical treatment. They can also be placed in a certain order inside the shell. This creates the classic firework burst, or simple shapes like hearts and smiley faces, where each “dot” represents a treated star.

While most fireworks have kept with this formula for a long time, modern technology is getting in on the fireworks game, and shows of the future could see some very unique twists and turns. “Quiet Fireworks” are an especially modern “boom” (tee hee). While no one has found a way to make fireworks truly silent (outside of sparklers and Roman Candles), some cities and companies have switched up their formulas or arranged their shows to reduce some of the louder kabooms. Colors are also due to get brighter and bolder, thanks to advancements in temperature control. Blue, which as been the hardest and rarest firework color because of the tight-rope act of temperature control needed to create it, is even seeing an increase in use. And computer simulations and 3-D modeling are allowing firework creators to time their displays to the millisecond, giving way to astounding, crisp new shapes and shows. These computer shows are also reducing accidents, since many light the fuses with e-matches or electronic signals detonated from a much safer distance.

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But despite the long road we’ve traveled with pyro displays, fireworks in the wrong hands still spell nothing but disaster. While some of these mishaps have proved deadly, some lean more towards the face-palming humorous side. Such as the great San Diego July 4th kafuffle of 2012. Although city officials planned and prepared a spectacular eighteen-minute display, something went wrong during detonation. Every last projectile screeched and sparkled at once. It made for a pretty impressive show… which lasted about twenty seconds. No injuries were reported, except the damage done to people’s patience, and probably some poor detonator that got canned.

A similar incident occurred in the town of Kyle, Texas in 2019, when ten minutes into the show, a malfunction caused a plethora of flammable projectiles to go off at once. While it spawned a few dangerous brush fires, the fire department got to them quick and no one was hurt. As for California on the 4th of July this year, fire departments responded to hundreds (yes hundreds) of calls from loosely handled fireworks. And one scan of Youtube on this subject shows a plethora of videos of stupid firework stunts gone wrong.

Still, we’re a nation and a people that love our bright sparkly kabooms, and that’s a fact. It must be why we keep going back to them time and again, even when we get burned (zing). And you know I’m a sucker for anything that goes so far back in time. Hopefully next year, we can pack up our picnic baskets, plop down in the park, and resume our big city fireworks shows. Until then, there’s always the movie Independence Day.

Be safe out there.

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SOURCES

American Pyro Techniques Association

Live Science – “History of Fireworks”

Smithsonian – “The Evolution of Fireworks”

Wikipedia

Speaking of summer fun, my husband and I enjoyed a terrific (and very Covid-safe) trip to Yellowstone National Park last month. Neither of us had been there before, and it is truly a magnificent place. Please enjoy the photos by clicking here

Fore more fireworks photos by yours truly, click here 

82 Comments on “POP POP POP! A Sparkly History of Fireworks

  1. We had our share of booms in our area though the immediate area was thankfully toned down since I’ve got nothing behind the house besides a tinder dry grassy hill.
    It would be nice if we could go back to the “safe and sane” for the backyard or driveway. That’s what I remember from my childhood. Going down to the fireworks stand with my dad was like seeing Santa Claus at the mall – it was the portending of a big event. A couple of days before the 4th my friends and I would set off the snakes and a Piccolo Pete or a pinwheel.
    I’m always tempted to go to a local county that sells the safe and sane fireworks but I guess that wouldn’t set a great example for the grandchildren.
    Stay safe.

    • I used to LOVE stuff like that too. In a lot of the Midwestern states the little firecrackers and stuff were sold along the highways during the summer. My brothers and I used to load up and use them all through the summer – the little bottle rockets and snappers and such. Nothing like the big booms being set off around here!

      • Every now and then one of the neighborhood kids who had a friend of a friend of a friend with a hookup in Chinatown would get some firecrackers and we’d stuff them with apples from our tree and we would make hand grenades with them.

      • Ahhh blowing up apples was always good fun. We did that a lot too 🙂

      • This year in the Midwest, those stands were carrying some much larger fireworks as well. And most of them sold out!

      • I bet it’s because of all the canceled shows! I know that’s what flooded the market with the big stuff here in CA. I couldn’t believe some of the stuff people were lighting off around here!

    • Glad to know we’re not the only ones! Hope you’re staying safe and sane

    • Right? Lol. It’s still going strong around here! Not as nuts as it was on the fourth but enough big bangs to keep us on our toes 🙂

  2. Great overview of all things fireworks, MB! The history, the ingredients, the annoying pandemic-time bursts in your neck of the woods… Enjoyed the humor, too. 🙂

    • We have nothing if not a sense of humor 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post Dave!

  3. Great post, MB. The uptick in fireworks here in LA and also SF has been a real nuisance. Excellent post covering current and past history. In my hometown in NJ, all the fireworks went off on the ground one year, as well. Makes for a short evening. 😉 🎆

    • Oh my gosh I bet haha. Must have been frustrating packing up all that stuff and waiting all that time just to have the show be done in a few seconds! And I agree, the fireworks have worn our nerves thin a bit this year!

  4. The fireworks were crazy here in our little town. They were going off everywhere! We were amazed of how much money went up in smoke!

    • With nowhere to go, money was probably burning a hole in their pocket 🙂 Sounds like the fireworks got pretty crazy everywhere from people’s comments!

    • I’ve been told I have a “flare” for that… 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it.

  5. potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal

    When you read about how potassium nitrate is manufactured and refined, and even sulfur; you have to wonder how in the world the ancients came up with this stuff!

    • …And didn’t blow themselves sky high in the process! So many things about ancient history that leave me scratching my head like that!

  6. This problem has definitely not been unique to LA. Here in the St. Louis area it was kind of a nightmare. I admit I’ve never been a huge fan of fireworks (though the distant ones launched by professionals are nice) and we always have a bunch in our town which allows them within a specific window on the 3rd and 4th, but I can usually shrug it off as all in good fun as long as people are careful and I don’t have to get too close. This year, however, people went nuts. My dog, who is not usually particularly concerned about fireworks or loud noises in general was an absolute wreck and so was I. We hid in our basement together and just shook. We’ve had some going off for several months now, too, but there haven’t been too many since the week of the 4th. I’m hoping people have finally gotten it out of their systems. Or perhaps every firework in the state has already been ignited.

    • 🙁 I’m so sorry you had such a rough 4th! That sounds awful! Our cats did okay considering how loud it was around here. One of them curled up and shivered in his favorite chair but the other one just went about her business. Like you, we hope everyone gets it out of their system soon so we can have some peace and quiet! (Well, LA peace and quiet anyway haha).

  7. Well that was fun, and educational, MB. Thanks. It’s hard not to love things that go boom in the night and light up the sky whether we are talking fireworks or thunder and lightning storms. I suspect the slight to real element of danger is also a factor. It is absolutely beyond me how someone would think setting off fireworks in a campground surrounded by tinder-dry forests, however, or any drought-dry place.
    Burning Man always concludes its event with a spectacular fireworks display that is tied in with the burning of the man. It often includes a massive, earth shaking boom. –Curt

    • Yeah, I do love fireworks but I’ve never set any off in California, too dry! 🙁 Especially with how bad our last fire years have been, I’m not interested in accidentally starting one! I bet Burning Man puts on a real good show. That big boom you speak of kind of reminds me of the “Wall of Fire” they do for the EAA Fireworks show at Oshkosh every year. It’s exactly like it sounds. A sheet of fire with a big boom.

  8. Excellent write-up and commentary. I spent one year at home in Pacific Beach in San Diego. There were so many illegal fireworks, drunk tourists. and beach afficionados, I swore to never be there for another 4th of July. The following year we went to Seattle and the next year moved by to Virginia (but not because of the 4th of July.)

    • Hahaha yep that’s an accurate description of the 4th of July around here 🙂 How was it in Seattle? I’ve been up there a few times but never during the 4th.

  9. As pretty as fireworks are and as much as I dislike being the fly in the ointment, I find it hard to justify the ongoing use of something that causes stress to countless critters, the potential for serious injuries to life or limb, and the pollution of our already-taxed atmosphere. There are many things we can live without, and fireworks are among them. If people think they can’t do without them, computer simulations might be the way of the future.

    • I think technology will open the way to a lot of cleaner, safer ways to do things for sure, because you have some very valid points. I know animal trauma (and some people trauma too) is a big reason why quieter fireworks are being explored. I’m sure technology will pave the way for even safer kinds of fireworks as well. I must admit I would be sad to see them go all together, but I do see your points here.

      • I guess I was never as big a fan as you, M.B., so I can live without them. I hope our wishes for cleaner and safer fireworks will come true.
        Best,
        Tanja

  10. Interesting read! You have a talent for finding the history behind events we take for granted.

  11. An interesting history. When I was a kid it seemed like nothing beyond sparklers and snakes were legal in my state. Now almost everything is. They do generate a steady supply of lawsuits every year. Like the time someone’s Roman candle went the wrong way and shot in through a neighbor’s open garage door. You can probably guess what happened.

    • Oh my!!! That sounds scary! I hope no one got hurt, although I imagine it caused some chaos at the very least. I agree too that bigger fireworks seem to be a lot more readily available, which I think leads to too many accidents.

  12. Wow. Who knew there was so much history behind those colorful bursts of sparkling bursts of light! I’ve always….respected….fireworks since one went off in my hand as a kid. Really hurt but thankfully I didn’t lose any fingertips!

    • Ouchy. That smarts when that happens! I had a bottle rocket pop a bit too close to my ankle when I was a kid but luckily none went off in my hand. It does give you extra respect haha! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post and that you didn’t lose your fingers!

  13. This was a very entertaining story! The first year of the Freedom Fest in Cedar Rapids Iowa the grand finale was the only display that was a success. All the other fireworks had fallen into the river! Thank you for all of the kaboom information!

    • Ha! Didn’t know that about the Cedar Rapids show. Very funny 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post

  14. Hello there MB! What a most interesting share! The sparks for revolution and independence continues. Big cheers and peace to the winding down of this week!👌💕👌

    • Let’s hope it winds down a bit this week! Early in the week was still pretty rough but it does seem to be quieting down a bit finally 🙂 People must be running out of their wares haha. Glad you enjoyed the post

      • 🙏The very best regards MB! I am so thankful that time passes on, seasons change concurrently impacting human aspects. 💐🍃🙏

  15. I cannot stand fireworks, MB. Our forest township has banned them for obvious reasons – I would have thought that most of the southwest should ban them too. Critters hate them too…

    • Yeah, it has made me very nervous seeing the extreme use of fireworks in California this year, especially since our last few fire seasons have been absolutely awful. While I enjoyed popping off the little firecrackers and bottle rockets in the Midwest as a kid, I’ve never used so much as a sparkler here in California. Too afraid of accidentally igniting something! I do still have a soft spot for the professional shows, but I also understand that they can be hard on animals and people. Hoping technology can step in and find a way to make it fun and safe for all!

  16. Girl you are on fire! Kaboom, sock it to us with history and detail.

    I could probably attribute some of my loss of hearing to fireworks [and cancer meds] as my brothers delighted in their ability to throw a double bunger to explode right by my ear for maximum effect. I got revenge one year when I ignited their entire stash in one go! I think it was later that year that they banned sales of fireworks for private use 🙂

    • Your brothers sound just as ornery as mine! LOL. Way to go holding your own though! Those fireworks sellers must have heard of all the shenanigans and pulled the plug 🙂 🙂 Thanks for sharing those stories, they reminded me of this story my dad always used to tell about him and his brother throwing a big firecracker into the basement fireplace when they were kids. It threw ash everywhere downstairs and enraged my grandma something awful hahaha. It’s always fun to hear him tell that story.

  17. Wow – I had never really thought about what goes into making fireworks before. I appreciated all the science. Ours were all cancelled – well the sanctioned ones were. Since buying fireworks is legal in my state, a lot of people from here and neighboring states had a field day in their yards and streets. As far as I know nobody was injured or fires started. I have to laugh though, when I think of how my grandfather used to have a restaurant put an actual sparkler or 2 in my birthday cake when we’d go out to eat for my birthday. I can still see it being carried across the dining area spitting sparks everywhere – including all over the table as it was set down in front of me. Everyone singing Happy Birthday. Very exciting when you’re a kid. But now I wonder how smart that was…

    • Hahaha! The things we did as kids that we now look back on and shake our heads! What a very cute story though, I’ve never had a sparkler birthday cake 🙂

      • Well, it’s probably just as well. Those sparks did sting. (but I never complained…it was still exciting)

  18. That was a nice history lesson. I didn’t know fireworks were that ancient! That aside, they might be beautiful, but I’m always unnerved by them.

    • I certainly get that, especially after this year. The nonstop noise has definitely been a bit unnerving!

  19. I enjoyed your post and history. I have always loved the boom that came with the fireworks. It was part of the awe factor! My area quit doing fireworks yeas ago and I miss them. I stand out on my porch and watch two smaller displays that my neighbors fire off. They are too far away to see but a few of the higher ones.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post. I enjoy the booms in moderation, but this year it’s been a bit over the top for me 🙂 I’m sorry to hear your area quit doing shows, that’s too bad 🙁

  20. Hi. Did you watch the July 4 fireworks that were telecast by NBC (maybe it was one of the other networks)? It was excellent. The telecast switched between four or so displays, all of them in New York City.

    • I didn’t happen to watch that! Wish I had known, I definitely would have tuned in. Although our neighbors gave us some pretty impressive shows too haha.

  21. I read this post twice to absorb all the details, and to enjoy all the memories it raised. It was dreadfully quite here, since all of the civic shows were cancelled, but there were plenty of well-stocked fireworks stands taking up the slack. They were illegal in my town, but there was no question where the city limits were — just the other side of the line in every direction, the fun was in full force!

    Sparklers, snakes, those strings of tiny red firecrackers, and pinwheels were our at-home joys when I was a kid. The boys always would get some cherry bombs and toss a few in school toilets or outhouses, of course, but best of all were the aerial displays. We’d get our blankets and a picnic supper, go to the city park, listen to a concert by the city band (plenty of Sousa!) and then watch fireworks.

    After moving to Texas, one of my favorite things to do on July 4 was driving along the coast on July 4th night. It’s so flat here that you can see all the shows from all the little towns spread out across the coastal plain — it’s really touching, to think of all those people celebrating in their own, small way.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and that it could bring you some fond memories. It sounds like you and I had very similar firework interests as children 🙂 Although we also had a good many bottle rockets. My brother found a long metal pipe we used to shoot them through in addition to bottles haha 🙂 It was always good times! The shows in Texas sound similar to the sights and sounds here in LA on July 4. A lot of people just drive up into the mountains and watch all the crazy. One of these years I’d like to give that a try myself, I bet it’s a splendid view! I hope you and yours had a wonderful fourth despite all the canceled fireworks.

  22. A very interesting story and history of fireworks. It was pretty calm here compared to you. I think you are right boredom makes people restless. I think that has also sparked the protests and riots in cities across the country. People seem to have an innate desire to be together in larger groups.

    • Glad you had a bit of a calmer time on the fourth haha! 🙂 Thank heaven they are finally calming down around here a little bit, I haven’t heard too many cracks and booms lately. As for the protests/riots, I do pray we can all work together to heal some of the deeper wounds that this pandemic has ripped open.

      • We have been cooped up too long for our own good. The pressures are venting in ways that are not helping anyone!

  23. In the Netherlands where my sister lives fireworks are the method of celebration for the new year. People liked them off by the thousands so much so that residents generally hosed down their homes before New Year’s eve to keep them from catching fire.

  24. Wow! Thanks for all the information! They are pretty, we have them here in Canada day, but it was canceled this year, I think they made something on the TV, but it isn’t the same.

    • I guess there was a televised show here too, another commenter pointed that out. I would have tuned in had I known, but you’re right, I’m sure it wouldn’t be the same! 🙁

  25. I will commiserate with you, but they have pushed me so far over the edge that I never want to see or hear another firework again. One of our dogs didn’t eat more than a couple bites for over 2 weeks after the incessant fireworks. I had to buy her a more uppity brand and stand there for half an hour waiting for her to eat it, while she constantly looked over her shoulder from PTSD. Why are people so thoughtless? If they’re bored, they can read a book.

    • Poor doggy 🙁 🙁 I hope she’s doing a little better. Luckily it seems to be finally quieting down around here (I say it quietly, for fear they might hear me and start up again!)

  26. Thanks for this history of fireworks. I had no idea blue was so difficult to achieve. And it was impressive to read about a 5-hour fireworks show – go big or go home, right?

    Are all these photos taken in your neighbourhood?

    • These have been taken all over the country actually, and over many years. Some are from fireworks shows where I grew up in the Midwest, some are from here in California, and a few are from random shows elsewhere. Five hours would for sure be insane. Go big or go home indeed! 🙂

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