Fireworks are a staple of many Independence Day celebrations. Of course, things will look a bit different in 2020, but we all remember how on July 4th, enormous, colorful displays would light up the night sky all across the United States—everything from private displays to world-famous pyrotechnics shows such as those held in Boston. But how did fireworks become a great American Independence Day tradition? The answer goes way back.
The modern displays that we know today originally came from China. The very earliest forms came from a discovery almost 2,000 years ago when people would heat bamboo stalks until they blackened and exploded under the pressure of heated air inside them. These would have been the original “firecrackers,” but true gunpowder-fueled explosives didn’t come till a bit later—sometime between 600 A.D. and 900 A.D. when alchemists in China started filling stalks of bamboo with the explosive substance.
Rockets Red Glare?
The first “rockets” were originally used as military weapons, starting with an improvement to the fire arrow that included affixing small packets of gunpowder to the arrow. These were produced by the Chinese in the 12th century, but they were very unpredictable and dangerous to use. It’s from the developments of gunpowder explosives and primitive rockets that the colorful explosives we know today came from. Over the years, alchemists started adding new ingredients to the mix, like iron shavings and steel dust, to give fireworks their sparkle.
Fireworks Come to Europe
As centuries passed, Chinese fireworks became popular elsewhere in the world, too. The Silk Road, which allowed for trade between Europe and the East, saw the secrets of gunpowder and fireworks making their way to Europe in the 13th century. During the Renaissance, Europeans used them at various celebrations. Anne Boleyn’s coronation as Queen of England in 1533 featured a large fireworks display, and in particular, Peter the Great and King Louis XIV were big fans of fireworks, noted for using them in a variety of European celebrations.
Fireworks—An American Tradition
Our current fascination with Fourth of July fireworks has its roots deep in American history. Even before the final version of the Declaration of Independence was signed, John Adams envisioned great celebrations in the future, ones that would include fireworks. In fact, in a letter that he wrote to his wife Abigail Adams on July 3, 1776—just the day before the Continental Congress adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence—he said that festivities should include:
Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forever more.
Those illuminations that he referred to? You guessed it… fireworks!
The First Fireworks Display
Although July 4, 1776, didn’t see any fireworks, in 1777, the first Fourth of July fireworks were lit over Philadelphia’s night sky. The Pennsylvania Evening Post wrote this of the celebration: The evening was closed with the ring of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.
Boston also held a display in 1777, and from there, the tradition took off. By 1783, the public could purchase all kinds of fireworks for their own Fourth of July celebrations.
From those early celebrations, displays have grown and become extraordinary feats of pyrotechnics. These days, estimates from the American Pyrotechnics Association say that more than 14,000 fireworks display glitter in America’s night sky on Independence Day.
Fireworks may have started as a Chinese invention 2,000 years ago, but they’ve been a part of American traditions since the very founding of this nation. As technology improves and pyrotechnics technicians work hard to put on bigger and more beautiful displays each year, this is one American tradition that will just keep growing!