It’s common knowledge that fireworks originated in China, but like many marvelous inventions, it was an accidental discovery. History tells us that alchemists attempting to develop an elixir for immortality tried a recipe of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). What they got was gunpowder and soon firecrackers were in huge demand as their loud bangs were used to scare away evil spirits.
Just as in modern times, military engineers saw a practical use for the substance’s explosive properties. Stuffing gunpowder into bamboo tubes was just the first step. The first documented use of gunpowder in a weapon of war is a catapult in the year 1046. Imagine the numerous trials and failures that eventually led to enough success that someone proudly recorded it for posterity!
What you learned in elementary school about Marco Polo bringing fireworks to Europe from his travels in 1295 is true. But Europeans had already experienced gunpowder weaponry during the Crusades. China tried to keep the technology within its own borders, but the formula for gunpowder had been carried to the Middle East by caravans traversing the Silk Road.
By the 15th century, Italians had refined methods for mixing chemicals and shaping aerial shells to produce specific shapes and colors of pyrotechnics. Ambitious displays lighting up the night sky were incorporated into religious and public celebrations all across Europe. For instance, the marriage of England’s Henry VII and Elizabeth Plantagenet in 1486 saw an elaborate presentation of pyrotechnic prowess.
The rise of fireworks as entertainment coincided with the end of medieval warfare. The same science that sent colorful explosions into the air created advances in ballistic weaponry; metal armor could be punctured by projectiles and fortified walls could be demolished from a distance.
Varieties of Fireworks
Stars: The small bits of explosive that scatter across the sky when fireworks explode
Peony: An explosion of stars in a radial pattern
Dahlia: Like a Peony, but with fewer and larger stars
Chrysanthemum: Like a Peony that leaves a trail of glowing particles as it falls
Crossette: A Chrysanthemum with stars that explode as smaller pieces, creating branches across the sky
Willow: Like a Crossette, but the glowing limbs must stay in the sky for 10 seconds or more
Palm: Like a Willow, but with slower-moving, slower-burning stars, resembling the limbs of a palm tree
Spider: Like the Chrysanthemum, but with longer-burning, droopy tails (like a spider’s leg)
Fish: Explodes into particles that wriggle like fish across the sky.
Rings: From a spherical shell, explosions that spread like Saturn’s rings
Time rain: Big, slow-burning stars that leave trails of sizzling, sparkling stars
Multi-break/Bouquet shells: A big shell containing smaller shells scattered by the first burst