07-04-12 – Fireworks

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07-04-12 – Fireworks, a set on Flickr.

The birthplace of fireworks is generally recognized as China, with the first explosive mixture found being black powder, during the Sung dynasty ( 960-1279 ). It is said that a cook in ancient china found that a mixture of sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal was very flammable and would explode if enclosed in a small space. The first application of this technology was for entertainment. The Chinese are still the leader in the production of fireworks. Once the recipe for black powder was perfected, they found that it was easily used as rocket fuel, and they made hand carved wooden rockets in the shape of a dragon, in the sixth century. These rockets shot rocket powered arrows from their mouth, and were used against the Mongol invaders of 1279. The principle behind these rockets is still used in rocket powered fireworks today.

Through adventurous explorers, the knowledge of making fireworks spread west, through Arabia in the seventh century. The Arabs called the rockets Chinese arrows. The Mongols are credited with taking Chinese rockets and gunpowder to Europe around 1241. The first record of their use in Europe are around 1258. Until the 19th century, fireworks lacked a major aesthetically essential characteristic: color. Pyrotechnicians began to use a combination of potassium chlorate and various metallic salts to make brilliant colors. The salts of these metals produce the different colors: strontium burns red; copper makes blue; barium glows green; and sodium, yellow. Magnesium, aluminum, and titanium were found to give off white sparkles or a flash.

Even though China invented the fireworks, Europe surpassed them in pyrotechnic development in the 14th century, which coincides with the time the gun was invented. Shot and gunpowder for military use was made by skilled tradesmen, later called firemakers, who also made fireworks for peace or victory celebrations. During the Renaissance, two European schools of pyrotechnic thought emerged: one in Italy and the other at Nuremberg, Germany. The Italian school of pyrotechnics emphasized elaborate fireworks, and the German school stressed scientific advancement. Both schools added significantly to further development of pyrotechnics, and by the mid-17th century fireworks were used for entertainment on an unprecedented scale in Europe, being popular even at resorts and public gardens. In the mid-19th century fireworks became popular in the United States. Injuries associated with fireworks, particularly to children, eventually discouraged their unrestricted use. As a result, in many states of the U.S. and in parts of Canada the sale of fireworks is now restricted by law.

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