Who Invented Fireworks? How Do They Work?

(Last Updated On: June 3, 2019)
Who Invented Fireworks?

Nothing screams celebration quite like an extravagant display of fireworks. For seemingly every major American festivity from New Year’s Eve to the Fourth of July, it’s standard practice to light up the sky with sound and color. We’ve now come to expect these impressive light shows, but how many people are really familiar with the history behind them? Who invented fireworks? How do fireworks work? And what are some other interesting bits of firework trivia? Here’s all you need to know.

Who Invented Fireworks?

Despite the fact that we now associate fireworks with American patriotism, the Chinese actually discovered the very first natural fireworks. As early as 200 BC, they began heating bamboo until it exploded. The ancient Chinese felt that this practice, and the accompanying loud explosions, would ward off evil spirits.

Later, around the start of the 9th century AD, Chinese alchemists began to combine a wide variety of ingredients, likely in a quest to find eternal life. While they were not able to eliminate human mortality, they did stumble upon some interesting discoveries. When these alchemists combined sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter, they created the very first incarnation of gunpowder.

At the time, they had no idea how significantly their new creation would change the world.

How Do Fireworks Work?

While the following centuries saw all sorts of innovations in the use of gunpowder as a weapon, eventually some less violent enthusiasts worked out ways to use it for entertainment, as well. Sometime around the 10th century, the Chinese learned that packing gunpowder into bamboo before detonating it created an impressive explosion. They soon also figured out a way to shoot fireworks at their enemies by attaching them to arrows and, after a couple hundred years, developed a method of firing them without having to use arrows, essentially creating the independent fireworks we still see today.

Think you can name each US city by its fireworks?

Fireworks Become More Popular

During the Renaissance, people became obsessed with fireworks displays, and many chose to learn the craft of building and detonating them as a career.

Italians, in particular, loved their explosions and, throughout the 19th century, implemented many improvements that increased the overall entertainment level of the displays. They used small amounts of metal and other ingredients to create brighter explosions and, in some cases, even control the shapes. Additionally, by adding in different chemical mixtures, they discovered that they could alter and manipulate the colors. Historians also credit the Italians with the conical aerial shell that we still use in fireworks today.

It wasn’t just Italy, though. The popularity of fireworks would steadily grow throughout the world since the Chinese first invented them. Henry VII featured the first English fireworks at his wedding festivities in 1486. And James II’s royal alchemist earned a knighthood for the firework display at the 1685 coronation. Fireworks crossed the ocean to America with early settlers, who set off the first recorded display in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608. Then, in 1777, Americans celebrated their independence with fireworks, starting the Fourth of July tradition we still see today.

Other Interesting Facts About Fireworks

  • Gunpowder presumably spread to the Middle East along the Silk Road, and Europeans most likely first encountered firework-like weaponry when Arabs used such devices during the Crusades.
  • You can use organic salt, oxidizer, metal flakes, and titanium powder to create different sounds. By layering the elements in a specific manner, you can also control the timing and combination of sounds that are produced.
  • Fireworks are essentially poisonous, causing serious health problems if people get too close. Studies are beginning to show that they aren’t so hot for the environment, either, and used fireworks can’t be recycled. However, some scientists are currently working on producing some more environmentally friendly firework concoctions.
  • In 2013, more than 11,000 Americans suffered fireworks-related injuries, and every year fireworks spark thousands of fires.

While far from perfect, fireworks remain a staple of some of our most storied traditions. Just be sure to take all the necessary safety precautions so that you’re not one of the sheepish ones stuck explaining that missing finger every time you go to a dinner party.