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A Brief History of Boom!

Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration Thomas Danthony

dispatches

Over the past 30 years, fireworks have become more colorful, timing tighter and patterns more complex. At this rate, it won’t be long before we can spell out entire words in the sparks. However, the historical record of making flowers out of fire is not quite as fast and furious. It took the world more than 2,000 years to arrive at the humble smiley-face mortar, with a lot of (ahem) bursts of creativity along the way. Here, a few highlights.

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200 B.C.
People in China, once frightened by the loud bangs green bamboo made when heated, begin to toss the sticks onto fires so that the explosions will scare away evil spirits.

A.D. 600–900
Chinese alchemists invent a rudimentary gunpowder—including saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur—and stuff it into bamboo shoots or paper tubes before placing them on fires. The bangs get bigger.

1295
Merchant ships, including those of Venetian explorer Marco Polo, transport fireworks to Europe from the Orient, along with spices, paper currency and other riches.

1400s–1500s
In England, “firemasters” perform the dangerous job of setting off fireworks. Their assistants are called “green men” for the caps made of leaves they wear to protect their heads.

July 4, 1777
Fireworks make an appearance at the first celebration of American Independence Day in Philadelphia.

1830s
Fireworks gain colors for the first time when Italian pyrotechnicians introduce trace amounts of metals like strontium, copper and sodium.

July 4, 1974
To liven up his Boston Pops Esplanade concerts, Arthur Fiedler conducts the “1812 Overture” with the addition of howitzer cannon blasts, fireworks and the peal of church bells.

1999
In Orlando, Walt Disney World’s EPCOT center develops a new way to launch fireworks, using compressed air instead of gunpowder, for its “Illumi-
Nations 2000: Reflections of Earth” show.

July 4, 2014
New York City’s annual fireworks return to the East River after five years of grousing from Brooklyn and Queens residents who couldn’t see them because they were on the opposite side of Manhattan.

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