25 facts about fireworks
It's hard to imagine there's a person in America who doesn't have at least a few childhood memories associated with fireworks. Thunderously loud, dazzlingly bright, and of course, that grand finale that never seems to end—fireworks are a nearly universal symbol of celebration across the world. They explode when wars are won, during holidays, and even when Disneyland closes down for the night. Millions of people line up to see them, and millions of dollars are spent buying them: The fireworks industry is experiencing an unprecedented golden age in terms of sales and consumption.
Those consumers, however, should keep in mind that fireworks make celebrations better only when they're handled safely—nothing kills a party faster than a trip to the emergency room for injuries involving exploding projectiles. Powerful and potentially very dangerous, fireworks are nothing to trifle with. Statistics show that thousands of Americans, many of whom are children, are injured each year by preventable accidents with fireworks. When they are done right, however, today's best fireworks shows are truly marvelous displays of science, imagination, pageantry, and, of course, history—a very long history, at that. While fireworks in America are most closely associated with Independence Day, they trace their roots back to well before July 4, 1776. The story of fireworks starts thousands of years ago and involves dramatic changes in military conquest, spirituality, and good old-fashioned fun.
From a handful of bottle rockets whizzing up and popping over the neighbor's yard to highly coordinated televised events that light up entire major cities, summer is fireworks season. Here's a look at how it all started, how it evolved, the numbers behind the industry, and the realities of how high the stakes are when you decide to run your own pyrotechnics show. Keep reading for a peek into the 2,000-year journey of the greatest party novelty in the history of the world.
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The first fireworks weren't really fireworks
The original fireworks were actually just sticks of bamboo, according to the Smithsonian Science Education Center. More than 2,000 years ago, around 200 B.C., people in China threw bamboo into fires, which would make the hollow rods explode when air trapped in pockets inside would burst after being heated.
Real fireworks emerged in China between the 7th and 10th centuries
The planet got a whole lot noisier somewhere between 600 and 900 A.D., according to the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA). During that period, alchemists in China developed what would become black powder by mixing charcoal with potassium nitrate and sulfur. The accidental discovery was the precursor to modern gunpowder and the ingredient that makes fireworks go boom.
The original fireworks shows were pretty lousy
Although powder-fueled fireworks were now officially pyrotechnic events, they would likely not have satisfied the modern reveler. The Chinese didn't add colors and they had not yet developed projectile explosives, so fireworks shows didn't light up the sky—or anything, really. They simply tossed the mixture encased in bamboo or paper into fires, where it ignited and made a series of pops, like modern firecracker strings.
The Chinese used fireworks in spiritual ceremonies
The Chinese originally used black powder fireworks not for entertainment, but for use in spiritual ceremonies. This was similar to their ancient predecessors, who used their air-filled bamboo fireworks to ward off evil spirits centuries before.
Aerial fireworks have military roots
It wasn't long before the concept of controlled explosions caught the eye of military tacticians, and by the year 1,200, the Chinese had invented rocket cannons. The devices used black powder to blast projectiles at approaching enemies. The deadly technology, however, also made it possible to blast fireworks into the sky—the aerial fireworks show was born.
Europeans adopted fireworks for entertainment
As the new military tech spread west, rocket cannons became artillery cannons and handheld muskets. Europeans adopted not just the weapons, but fireworks, as well. They began expanding the technology into elaborate displays that were held to celebrate religious holidays, military victories, and royal festivities—for the first time in history, fireworks were the life of the party.
Fireworks have always been part of July 4th since 1776
The Smithsonian printed excerpts of a letter Founding Father and future president John Adams wrote to his wife on July 2, 1776, two days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote that he believed a massive celebration was in order and that the festivities should include fireworks, although he called them "illuminations." Adams got his fireworks and they've been closely associated with the holiday ever since.
Americans use tons of fireworks—literally
About 19.1 million pounds of consumer fireworks (small-scale explosives such as bottle rockets, firecrackers, and roman candles) were used in 2018, according to the APA—that's about 9,500 tons. That, however, is just a drop in the bucket compared to the 258.4 million pounds of consumer fireworks that were used during the same time period. In total, 277.5 million pounds of fireworks were set off in 2018 alone.
Consumers are using more fireworks as display use declines
The 277.5 million pounds of fireworks consumed in 2018 is approaching double the 152.2 million pounds consumed in 2000. The use of display fireworks (professional-grade shows involving significantly more explosive material than consumer fireworks) dropped by more than half during that time from 50.6 million pounds to 19.1 million pounds. Consumers, however, went from using just 102 million pounds to 258.4 million pounds in the same span of time.
Fireworks are legal in most of America
Every state in America plus Washington D.C. permits some or all consumer fireworks that are legal at the federal level, according to the APA—all except one. Massachusetts bans all consumer fireworks, while Illinois, Ohio, and Vermont allow only novelty items like sparklers.2018 All rights reserved.