Lose an eyebrow, burn a hole in your shirt, and scare the dog. It’s time for fireworks.
Several tents have popped up in the area and the window displays at the brick and mortar stores seem just a little brighter this time of year. You can buy one get one, get them all half off, mix and match, and blow every last dime to buy the monster variety pack.
But where did they come from? And just who was the first person to spark a firework?
Historians believe the Chinese were already using a very primitive firecracker as early as 200 B.C. — a bamboo shoot tossed into fire. When roasted, bamboo would emit a loud pop because of its hollow air pockets.
Fast-forward a few hundred years.
Legend has it a Chinese cook was hard at work when he accidentally spilled some saltpeter into his fire. Saltpeter is a potassium nitrate compound. Sound familiar?
Today the same kind of compound is used in fertilizer and gunpowder, although 2000 years ago it was a food seasoning. Considering the cook’s fire also likely contained sulfur and charcoal, the mix of the three made for a strangely colored flame.
What did he do?
The legend goes on to say he decided to stuff it into the bamboo he already knew made for a loud pop when heated.
Bam. The world had its first pyrotechnic.
The device became common in Chinese religious ceremonies with the belief that the noise would scare away evil spirits.
It wasn’t long after the accidental invention that the recipe for gunpowder began spreading along the trade routes back into Europe. Some took the technology and began developing cannons and muskets. Others still continued to develop fireworks.
Records from medieval times tell tales of fireworks used to entertain emperors and of gunpowder used to launch rockets at enemies. As time went on, gunpowder changed and was used in muskets and cannons.
In the 17th century, Lev Izmailov, an ambassador for Peter the Great, returned home from a trip to China and said “They make such fireworks that no one in Europe has ever seen.” In 1749, George Frideric Handel composed music to go along with fireworks to celebrate a peace treaty between Great Britain, France and the Dutch Republic.
The first recorded fireworks event in America happened around 1608 when John Smith put on a show at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. Colonists loved the fireworks so much so that Rhode Island had to make a law in the 1700s to ban the “mischievous use of pyrotechnics.”
On July 3, 1776, the day before the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, predicting the future celebrations of the Fourth of July.
“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…bonfires and illuminations [a term for fireworks]…from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore,” he wrote.
Of course, not everybody was having a good time with the blasts. In the late 1800s, New York City chess player John Rice became part of the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary noise, a group that lobbied for restrictions on racket. The society’s first meeting reportedly consisted of listening to the types of racket that needed to be silenced – ships, horns, and yelling on the street.
Eventually, the Society would dissolve, though their ideals still live on at least a little bit.
Ever seen a sign near a hospital about it being a designated quiet area?
Thank Rice for that.
He argued that hospital patients were tormented by the noise of boats.
Of course, towns do have other noise ordinances, and that includes fireworks.
Be thankful, Campbell County.
While LaFollette restricts firework use in the city, the county has no restrictions. Our Anderson County neighbors aren’t allowed to set off their own pyrotechnics.
So when the neighborhood is popping this weekend and your windows are rattling, just remember – this is another year in the history books of thousands of years of commemoration of what’s important to us.
Get a bucket of water and a lighter, and don’t wait on that noise society – the racket will be over soon. Like John Adams predicted, this will all go off with a bang.