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The Chinese and the Art of Explosion

Ancient History | July 16, 2019

Folk artists perform molten iron fireworks at Taierzhuang ancient city of China. (Photo by Gao Qimin/VCG via Getty Images)

This Fourth of July holiday, as we all look into the night sky and oooh and ahhh at the breathtaking fireworks displays, let’s take a moment to honor the Chinese alchemists who, while trying to develop a potion to extend the human lifespan into eternity, hit upon an explosive breakthrough. Their new creation—gunpowder—changed history and changed how we in the United States celebrate our nation’s independence. 

The first firecrackers were made with bamboo. (dynamitefireworks.com)

The Chinese Liked to Make a Bang

Long before they developed gunpowder, Chinese people were enamored by explosives. They toyed around with natural firecrackers. These were essentially just stalks of freshly cut bamboo. They discovered that, when tossed into a fire, the water droplets in the hollow center of the bamboo would heat to steam and burst out of the plant with a small explosion, not unlike a popcorn kernel exploding. The ancient Chinese loved their bamboo firecrackers. They thought that the little explosions kept the evil spirits away

Chinese alchemists hit on the formula for gunpowder while seeking immortality. (innergarden.org)

Alchemists and the Quest for Eternal Life

The ancient Chinese, like most cultures of the world, were concerned with the finality of death and looked for magic potions and elixirs that would make man immortal. It was while attempting to find immortality around 800 A.D. that some alchemists mixed together charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter. When it, this compound sparked and exploded, to the delight of the chemists. 

The ancient Chinese delighted in the explosions. (historyplex.com)

Man-Made Firecrackers

The ancient Chinese loved their natural bamboo firecrackers, but they weren’t always reliable. If the moisture content inside the bamboo stalk wasn’t high enough, it was a dud. But if the alchemists packed the bamboo stalk with their new gunpowder mixture, they got the desired pop every time. After a while, they replaced the bamboo stalks with paper tubes and the first true firecracker was born. 

Firecrackers attached to arrows became a weapon. (flatsond.com)

More Than a Bang

A common falsehood states that the Chinese invented gunpowder, but never realized its potential as a weapon. This is not entirely true. Around the tenth century, the Chinese military found that they could attach the firecrackers to arrows. Through trial and error experimentation, they figured out the best wick length to ensure that the firecracker exploded when it reached the enemy. These were, in a sense, the first bombs. 

The ancient Chinese thought explosions scared away evil spirits. (abcnews.go.com)

Fireworks!

Through their experimentation, the Chinese discovered that when the arrow firecrackers exploded in the sky, it created a spectacular light show. Different chemicals and colored papers could be added to make colorful explosions. In some parts of China today, fireworks are still launched into the sky using archers with gunpowder-laden arrows. 

An 1797 etching of fireworks on the river Thames. (ssec.si.edu)

Gunpowder Travels to Europe

Once trade routes between Europe and China became well-established, gunpowder made its way to Europe. Here is was used in firearms, but it also retained its use as a firework. Much like today, fireworks were used in celebrations and festivals as a form of entertainment. Magicians and court jesters used firecrackers and other small explosive fireworks to dazzle the crowds. 

Peter the Great put on a 5-hour fireworks show. (korsatour.com)

Royal Fireworks

In 1486, fireworks were used to mark the royal wedding day of King Henry VII. Two centuries later, they were again used at the coronation celebration of King James II. According to legend, Czar Peter the Great ordered an extravagant firework display to honor the birth of his son. This firework show lasted about 5 hours. 

Special schools sprang up to teach pyrotechnics. (youtube.com)

Schools of Pyrotechnic

To teach people how to make elaborate and colorful firework displays, several schools of pyrotechnic opened across Europe in the Renaissance Era. Individual fireworks became more complex. New shapes and colors were added as people learned to control how the gunpowder exploded. 

John Adams suggested we celebrate America's birthday with fireworks. (9news.com)

An American Tradition

Fireworks traveled to the New World with European settlers. The tradition of setting off fireworks in honor America’s Independence Day actually started on July 4, 1777, the one year anniversary of the birth of the United States. To commemorate that day, John Adams suggested, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with bonfires and fireworks, from one end of the continent to the other.” Americans ever since have followed his suggestion and turned July 4th into a great celebration including, of course, fireworks displays in nearly every community in the country. 

Tags: Chinese alchemists | explosives | fireworks | first fireworks

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.