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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
American Pyro Techniques Association
Live Science – “History of Fireworks”
Smithsonian – “The Evolution of Fireworks”
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