While there will no doubt be an array of dazzling fireworks near our holiday lodges in Suffolk, the history of the firework couldn’t be further away from the UK.
The discovery of fireworks in the basic form (the formula) is thought to have occurred purely by accident as many as 2,000 years ago in China.
It is believed that a cook in China unintentionally mixed three common kitchen ingredients; KNO3, Sulphur and Charcoal.
These ‘ingredients’ were heated over a fire and dried to produce a black flaky powder which burned with a loud bang once it was ignited. This rudimentary, early mixture is what we have come to know in today’s world as gun powder.
The Chinese decided to name this new enthralling black powder "huo yao" or "Fire Chemical" to us, to which they developed it further. The mixture was inserted into the hollow of a bamboo stick, which was then tossed into a fire. When it landed in the fire the gases produced by the ignited burning powder inside caused an enormous build-up of pressure and subsequently blasted the tube apart in spectacular form. This is what we know as the earliest form of fire crackers.
From then on, fire crackers played a vital part to Chinese festivities of all kinds, including religious rituals and weddings. They were essential for these festivities as they were considered to produce a bang that was loud enough to ward off evil spirits!
It didn’t take long for the word and knowledge of fireworks to spread to the western world. An English Scholar, Roger Bacon who lived from 1214 to 1294, was one of the first Europeans to study gunpowder. He understood that it was the Salt Peter (KNO3) that was the driving force behind the explosion. He was also very aware that his findings had the dangerous potential of utterly revolutionising warfare. Due to this he took to writing his findings in code, as a vain attempt to save lives should his discovery reach the hands of the wrong people. We’re sure Bacon would be pleased to know that his code wasn’t deciphered for hundreds of years.
Come 1560 and European Chemists accomplished the feat of making gunpowder as explosive as possible through experimentation with the ingredients’ ratios. The final quantities were set as Salt Peter 75%, Charcoal 15%, and Sulphur 10%, and these ratios are still used today some 500 years later!
The result of the chemists’ findings brought about the end of medieval warfare due to the fact that metal armour could now be punctured by bullets, and the seemingly impenetrable walls of castles were now no match for cannon balls fired using explosions, as they simply smashed them to pieces.
Did you know that the true credit for developing fireworks into a genuine art form goes to the Italians? It was their development of aerial shells that propelled upward and exploded into a fountain of colour, thus lighting up the night sky for the enjoyment of dazzled onlookers.
Over time these firework displays evolved into more and more elaborate shows, progressively working their way into the back gardens of ordinary families. For a good 2,000 years, the only colours fireworks were able to yield were yellows and oranges with the use of steel and charcoal. However, during the 19th Century pyrotechnicians had the technology at their disposal to introduce reds, greens and blues to their displays.