The season of loud explosions and large fires is upon us. Fireworks have their origins in China 2,000 years ago when three kitchen ingredients (saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur) were mixed together, dried and ground into a powder called huo yao (‘fire chemical’). This crude gunpowder could be poured into a hollow bamboo tube and thrown onto a fire to make the original firecracker.
The Chinese went on to perfect the art of pyrotechnics for celebratory purposes but weren’t above using it in warfare to propel arrows and even live rats, which were fired at the enemy to create fear among men and horses.
At the heart of a good fire (and a good firework) you’ll find potassium. The lilac blue flame you see when wood burns is produced by potassium, and potassium nitrate (KNO3) or saltpetre, is the key ingredient of gunpowder. Saltpetre arises naturally from rotting animal and vegetable waste. For several hundred years, the richest source was the earthen floor of human houses. This was excavated by teams of ‘Saltpeetermen’ most of them in the pay of the diarist John Evelyn’s family, who were granted a Royal saltpetre monopoly in 1588. The careless vigour of their extraction methods caused a parliamentary uproar in 1601: ‘They digge in bedchambers, in sickrooms, not even sparing women in childbed, yea, even in God's house, the Church’.
Saltpetre remains useful in other applications including the manufacture of ice cream, preserving meat, plant fertilizer and toothpaste for sensitive teeth.
Fireworks have two fuses: one to ignite the gunpowder, and another that burns slower, creating a well-timed explosion.
In 1678, a rumour of another gunpowder plot went around London. The King's firework maker was arrested.
In 2010, there were more than 6,000 reported injuries due to fireworks in the US.
We are all like fireworks. We climb, shine and always go our separate ways and become further apart.
The pyrotechnics that accompanied Handel's famous 'Music for the Royal Fireworks' in 1749 killed three people.
At the opening of Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, 14 tons of fireworks were let off. The awe-inspiring finale was a salvo of 500 rockets fired simultaneously, but the largest firework display ever recorded consisted of 66,326 fireworks. They was set-off at 37 launch sites spread across the island of Madeira, by Portuguese company Macedo's Pirotecnia on New Year's Eve 2006.
Much less impressive was the huge public firework display celebrating the end of the War of Austrian Succession in 1749 at which Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks was premiered; Horace Walpole described the display as 'pitiful and ill-conducted'. A nearby pavilion caught fire and three people were killed, but the disaster was not nearly as bad as an earlier display in Paris that killed forty and injured almost three hundred after French and Italian pyrotechnicians argued over who would light their fireworks first and ended up setting them all off at the same time.
A company called Heavens Above Fireworks in Essex will incorporate cremated ashes into fireworks for a happier farewell'.
Fireworks are an art form that uses the night sky as the canvas.