Thursday, October 25, 2007

Light My Fire - The Art of Fireworks

Fireworks originated in China some 2,000 years ago. The most prevalent legend has it that fireworks were discovered or invented by accident by a Chinese cook working in a field kitchen who happened to mix charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter (all commonly found in the kitchen in those days). These were heated over a fire and dried to give a black flaky powder which burned with a loud bang when ignited. This crude, early mixture has come to be known in our modern world today as gun powder.

The Chinese named this fascinating black powder "huo yao" ("Fire Chemical") and developed it further. The mixture was inserted into the hollow of a bamboo stick and when thrown into a fire, the gases produced by the ignited burning powder inside caused an immense build up of pressure and blasted the tube apart. The basic fire cracker was born.

The firecrackers, both then and now, are thought to have the power to fend off evil spirits and ghosts that are frightened by the loud bangs of the firecrackers. Firecrackers are used for such purposes today at most events such as births, deaths and birthdays. Chinese New Year is a particularly popular event that is celebrated with firecrackers to usher in the new year free of the evil spirits.

It was inevitable that the time would come when people would begin to realise that these now powerful explosives could be applied to warfare. The Chinese were well aware of the killing power these explosives had and within 100 years had not only developed fire arrows (bamboo fire crackers attached to regular arrows and shot at the enemy) but even 'Ground Rats'. These consisted of propelling rats from inside the bamboo fire crackers and toward the enemy, creating a great psychological effect -scaring soldiers and causing horses to go wild.

Generally Marco Polo is credited with bringing the Chinese gunpowder back to Europe in the 13th century, although some accounts credit the Crusaders with bringing the black powder to Europe as they returned from their journeys.
Once in Europe, the black powder was used for military purposes, first in rockets, then in canons and guns.

Italians were the first Europeans who used the black powder to manufacture fireworks.
Credit for developing fireworks into a true art form has to be awarded to them. It was they who were able to develop aerial shells that launched upward and exploded into a fountain of colour; lighting up the night sky to the enjoyment of onlookers.

Before the 19th Century, the only colours that could be produced were yellows and oranges with the use of steel and charcoal. Later development involved Chlorates which introduced basic reds and greens to the repertoire. Good blues and purples were not developed until this century and the quest for the formation of a deep forest green coloured firework continues still to this day.

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