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History of Fireworks and Celebrations

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Nobody knows when the first fireworks were made, but fireworks were being used in ancient China long before they were known in other parts of the world.

Two important Chinese inventions are used in fireworks - paper and gunpowder. The mixture we call "gunpowder" was used in China to make fireworks long before the invention of guns. It is a mixture of three things that have been known in China from ancient times. The first is charcoal, the black solid formed when wood is heated in a fire. The next is sulphur, found in many parts of the world as a peculiar, crumbly yellow stone. When sulfur is put into a fire, it melts and burns with a blue flame, making a dreadful smell. The ancient Chinese used sulphur as a medicine.

The final thing that goes into gunpowder is saltpetre, a white powdery material that looks just like ordinary salt. It is found naturally in the drier parts of China, and was used as a medicine and in cooking. Anyone who happened to spill some saltpetre into the fire would have noticed that the hot coals burned very fiercely around the melting saltpetre. Perhaps this gave someone the idea of mixing saltpetre and charcoal together and setting it alight. This mixture, if the proportions are just right, burns quickly and throws out glowing sparks. With some sulphur added, the mixture burns even more rapidly, making a lot of smelly smoke. When it is put into a paper tube, or a piece of bamboo, and set alight, the burning mixture shoots out a jet of fire and sparks. If the end of the tube is closed up, and the gunpowder is lit through a small hole, the jet of fire shoots out further. If the hole is very small, the tube sometimes bursts with a loud bang.

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This discovery would have been very exciting for the ancient Chinese. They liked to make loud noises at festivals and religious ceremonies, to scare away evil spirits. Before the invention of gunpowder, sticks of bamboo were thrown into fires to make loud bangs. Gunpowder would have been a great improvement. Perhaps at first it was just put into bamboo tubes and set alight. Even if it did not always make a noise, the smoke and sparks would have helped to keep evil spirits and demons away. Eventually, someone worked out how to make a fuse out of very thin paper and gunpowder twisted into a long string. With this fuse, it became possible to make firecrackers that exploded reliably.

The firecrackers for religious festivals were often made out of red paper. The fuses were plaited together to make long strings of firecrackers. When these were set off, they made a lot of very loud bangs and little bits of red paper were scattered far and wide. Evil spirits were supposed to be frightened of red, and so they would be kept away by the scattered pieces of red paper long after the firecrackers had finished. Chinese firecrackers are still used in huge numbers every year in Chinese festivals - and just for fun!

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Sometimes a firecracker that has not been made properly does not explode but instead shoots out a jet of fire and flies away in the air or along the ground. This is a very primitive rocket. The ancient Chinese made rockets by fixing tubes packed with gunpowder to sticks, that kept the rockets pointing in the right direction as they flew through the air. These early rockets were used in festivals, and also in warfare as "arrows of flying fire". They were very effective against soldiers on horseback. The unknown Chinese inventor who first sent a tube of gunpowder into the sky on the end of a stick would have been very surprised to learn that people would one day travel to the moon with the help of giant rockets.

Another Chinese discovery, still used in modern fireworks, was that powdered iron mixed with gunpowder made beautiful, flowerlike sparks. The ancient Chinese did not know about the chemicals needed to make coloured flames and white sparks. Fireworks with these effects were developed in Europe over the last two hundred years. In recent times, the Chinese have set up large factories to make fireworks for sale all over the world. As well as the traditional Chinese firecrackers, these factories make a huge variety of fireworks ranging from sparklers and tiny fountains to the colourful star shells used in big fireworks displays.


No British schoolboy needs reminding of the story of Guy Fawkes, The Gunpowder Plot conspirator whose name has been linked in the public imagination over the centuries with the attempt to overthrow the government of James I.

In fact Fawkes, a soldier born in York, was not the leader of the Plot but was discovered in the vaults before the opening of Parliament. Somehow Robert Catesby's Night does not have the same ring about it!

However, a fire celebration at the time of year at which Guy Fawkes' Night is celebrated pre-dates Fawkes by at least 2000 years!

The inhabitants of these islands celebrated at a festival called Samhain - at which bonfires were lit. It is believed that these were designed to ward off evil spirits as the dark days of Winter approached in days when there was no artificial light to alleviate the gloomy, short days.

Why Guy Fawkes (or the Gunpowder Plot conspirators) became associated with the annual firework celebration is easy to establish.

Firstly the government wished the populace to be constantly reminded about a Roman Catholic plot which had threatened (or promised if you were a Roman Catholic!) to introduce Catholicism as the main - perhaps only - Christian creed in this country. This would have been why a contemporary declaration decreed that the Fifth Of November should be an annual public holiday in this country. Sadly this decree is no longer observed!

The date, the Fifth of November, was also significant for religious reasons in that it was on this day that the protestant William of Orange (who was to become William III) landed in Britain to replace the Roman Catholic king, James II.

But, perhaps even more significantly, the Plot held all the necessary constituents of a fiery celebration. There was gunpowder involved - even if it was never lit and never, as it undoubtedly would have done, destroyed the Palace of Westminster which pre-dated our current Houses of Parliament.

It also involved the burning of an effigy - a relatively common occurrence at the time. Poor Guy Fawkes was not burned - but hanged, drawn and quartered - a barbaric fate reserved for traitors at the time.

Although Guy Fawkes is burnt in effigy on thousands of bonfires in Britain, St Peter's School in York is an exception, for the understandable reason that Guy (or Guido as he was sometimes known) was a pupil of that school. Indeed it was only in recent years that the school celebrated the event at all.

The word 'guy' may not even refer to Guy Fawkes, with some associating the effigy with guisers (people, like mummers, who dress up to stage ancient dances and performances) and others attributing the name to a word, meaning log, which had associations with a Druid festival.

Fireworks were associated with Guy Fawkes' Night from soon after the Plot - as we know from the Diary of Samuel Pepys. But then they were used to mark any form of celebration. The back garden fireworks of the time - squibs, serpents, crackers often made in unsuitable surroundings of the fireworkers' homes in busy crowded streets - are described by Pepys, and many of the fireworks familiar to us - like rockets and fountains - were known to him as well.

Sadly not everyone was as detailed as Pepys in the records they kept and - like other aspects of the lives of 'ordinary' people - firework use by the populace before Guy Fawkes went largely unrecorded.

We do know however that 1487 saw the use of fireworks at the coronation of Elizabeth of York (bride of Henry VII) - where a dragon spouted fire into The Thames. That sad queen, Anne Boleyn, also witnessed fireworks at her coronation where 'wild men casting fire and making a hideous noise' were part of the celebration.

Anne's daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, created the position of Firemaster - so enamoured was she of fireworks.

A firework display was planned to celebrate the first ever 'Fifth of November' - but it never took place.

Display audiences of the early nineteenth century and before would not have even been able to witness colour in fireworks. Many tricks were tried to suggest that the displays had colour - like coloured glass screens in front of non-coloured fireworks - and the use of pitch, oil and resin rather than gunpowder. Today metallic salts provide colours (strontium red, copper blue, barium green and sodium yellow).

Another way in which earlier display audiences were kept amused without colour was by the use of 'machines'. Machines were backdrops for the fireworks, often designed by leading architects of the day. Some of these were made of fabric and wood, but others (one in Versailles was made of red marble) were permanent structures and stood long after the fireworks had been lit. The machine would often be in the form of a temple or an important building and they would hide the rudimentary fusing used to communicate the fire from one firework to another - and indeed the fireworks themselves which did not have pretty wrappers as they do today.

Another compensation for colour was size and quantity. Huge rockets (far bigger than anything used today) were fired in flights of hundreds and thousands and must have made a tremendous noise. And noise was something which was not in short supply. While there were no 'cakes' (the modern fireworks comprising many tubes), ground fireworks (pots) would be fired giving a similar (or even more spectacular) effect. But gold, silver and white were used in increasingly imaginative ways as the years progressed. Fireworks such as six pointed suns with moving parts between and spinning wheels of incrediable complexity pleased audiences then. Perhaps because we have such interesting effects now, display operators have lost the art of ingenuity? The Maltese and Spanish, though, cannot be accused of this!

Today Guy Fawkes celebrations are as popular as ever - both the use of shop fireworks and the witnessing of displays. Safe use of garden fireworks is a considerable joy, and public displays provide more spectacular sights. Modern displays often feature mainly aerial fireworks - and this is the main difference in firework presentation today with a display of a hundred years ago.

Many can remember when ground fireworks - including amusing pieces like chickens laying eggs and men riding bicycles were part of the show. Now shells (fired by mortars (long cardboard tubes) form an important part of the major firework displays. These are quite rightly not available to the general public and are fired by operators who know their business.

Fireworks are a source of colour, noise and excitement. Many argue that fireworks represent an art form rather than chemistry. They may have a point. Whatever your view, and whether you use garden fireworks or go to displays (remember to look at our display list), or both, always play safe with fireworks. And they will afford you immense pleasure.


Facts About Fireworks (kindly supplied by Arcade International

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