Fireworks were invented by accident by the Chinese over a thousand years ago. One theory is that the explosives were discovered as monks attempted to find the Elixir of Life – the secret to longevity or long life.
The other is that cooks came across the recipe in their kitchens. The former seems the more probable explanation as it is hard to imagine something edible being made from sulphur, saltpetre (potassium nitrate) and charcoal.
The Chinese packed the mixture into sticks of bamboo, jammed the end with river mud and set fire to them, with spectacular results – showers of gold and silver accompanied by cracking sounds. They used their ‘arrows of flying fire’ in ceremonies and also to ward off evil spirits.
In Europe, several centuries later, fireworks became an everyday part of religious celebrations and processions in the Catholic countries, Spain, France and Italy. The Crusaders most probably brought them back from the East.
Italian and French chemists experimented with different chemicals and came up with an array of colours by adding potassium chlorate to a range of metal salts. Barium made green, sodium made yellow, while strontium made red. They also introduced special effects. Blue eluded them for centuries until it was realised that copper would produce colour.
By the 1500s, the spectacle appealed so much to Europe’s kings and queens, it became commonplace for fireworks to be used to mark declarations of peace, victory, war and any big royal occasion.
The French kings were particularly enthusiastic and used them for royal weddings as well as for theatrical events. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I commissioned displays for private and state occasions and appointed a Fireworks Master. George II was the first to add music when he commissioned Handel to compose a special outdoor concerto in the early 18th century.
In Britain, before 1872 it was illegal to make fireworks and the occupation was dangerous not only for liberty, but also for life. People would dry out explosive ingredients using an open fire and store volatile chemicals in their loft, with often disastrous consequences. One spark could blow up the whole of a tightly packed street. But politicians and royalty often turned a blind eye to the illegal trade, mainly because they wanted fireworks for their own events.
Once the manufacture of fireworks became legal, people were keen to use them at every opportunity. One day was particularly popular, November 5th – as it was the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, when Guy Fawkes and his accomplices tried to blow up Parliament.
Modern fireworks work by mixing gunpowder with various ingredients, such as magnesium, titanium, barium and aluminium. When they are lit, the chemical reactions create a mass of different colours and effects.