Illuminating History

By Annie Gallay, Intern

As the Fourth of July nears, I have to make a confession that will no doubt reveal I’m an amateur American: When I was a child, I failed to grasp the gravity of the Declaration of Independence. I noted it for one reason and one reason only: John Hancock’s sprawling, splashy signature. It was only later that I came to appreciate the document that affirmed our right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and of course the other great men who’s significantly more sedate signatures donned the Declaration. In 1776, future president John Adams stamped his approval and declared the importance of commemorating the event in a letter to his wife, Abigail: “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade…and illuminations…from one end of this continent to the other.”

These days we refer to “illuminations” as fireworks and put on pyrotechnic shows that would make our founding fathers swell with pride. Fireworks, much like our nation, underwent a series of evolutions before becoming the dazzling displays they are today.

According to the History Channel, the earliest iteration of fireworks was invented in China in 200 B.C. The Chinese created rudimentary firecrackers to ward off evil spirits by roasting bamboo—the hollow plants explode in fire generating a loud bang. Between the 7th and 10th centuries, Chinese alchemists developed gunpowder by combining various chemicals including sulfur and potassium nitrate. By pouring this volatile compound into bamboo stalks and throwing them into fire, the Chinese produced the very first fireworks! Not long after they replaced the bamboo with paper tubes and began lighting fireworks to celebrate special events like Chinese New Year.

The Chinese recognized the fireworks’ potential to revolutionize warfare. By the 12th century, they had used this technology to build rockets giving them an advantage over their enemies and laying the groundwork for aerial firework shows. Over the next several centuries, travelers spread firework formulas from China through Europe and into Arabia.

While we owe the original firework to our Chinese neighbor, we should thank our Italian neighbors for the recipe behind the vibrant, colorful fireworks that brighten the night sky every Independence Day. In the early 19th century they began integrating metals and other extra ingredients into the traditional firework equation. The resulting pyrotechnic stars, as they’re now called, were fireworks imbued with brilliant, prismatic hues and a broad new array of spark effects.

Fireworks have made quite the advancement from bamboo stalks becoming so popular that they are no longer reserved solely for celebrations. Pyrotechnic competitions from the Montreal Fireworks Festival to the World Pyro Olympics in the Philippines and other festivals devoted to fireworks span the globe from the Singapore to Switzerland.

This Fourth of July, there are several places to get your firework fix in and around Houston. Freedom over Houston, held in Eleanor Tinsley Park, packs a pyrotechnic punch and features country music legend Clint Black. The Fourth of July Celebration at the Kemah Boardwalk promises live music and a patriotic fireworks salute. If you’re in the Woodlands, check out the Red, Hot and Blue Festival for fireworks and family-friendly activities.

Fireworks are so much more than a light show—they are a testament to human inspiration, ingenuity and creativity. And that leaves me feeling pretty festive.

Bright Sky Press
Where Texas meets books Fireworks