Rockets’ Red Glare

Aileen Marshall


Are you looking forward to the Fourth of July holiday? It’s great to get a day off from work, and, of course, it is a celebration of the country’s independence. Yet another thing to get excited about is the traditional fireworks displays. Fireworks have been a part of the Independence Day tradition since the holiday started. There are all sorts of displays across the country, from hour-long, high-tech shows in big cities to local fire departments setting off Roman candles and a few standard fireworks in small towns.

Where did fireworks come from? Although some sources credit India as the country of origin, most sources say they were invented in China as far back as 200 B.C. People would roast bamboo branches, then the air pockets inside the bamboo would make a loud pop. At first, the Chinese would use these to ward off evil spirits. Some time between the tenth and twelfth centuries, they learned that if they put an early form of gunpowder inside the branch, it would make an even louder bang, which is credited as being the first firecracker. Adding shavings from iron or steel inside the bamboo make them sparkle. After a while, they learned to attach firecrackers to arrows, and shoot them at enemies. They even created simple rockets by putting gunpowder in a wide tube with the bottom end open and lighting a fuse, which they then aimed at opposing armies.

During the twelfth century with the development of the Silk Road, gunpowder and fireworks started making their way to Europe. Throughout the Renaissance, fireworks spread across Europe and became popular to use for celebrations. They were used during the wedding of Henry the VII of England and the coronation of Anne Boleyn. Italy became famous for its experts in fireworks manufacturing and the production of colorful displays. In 1742, George II ordered a display to mark the end of the War of Austrian Succession and commissioned Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks specifically for the event.

The early European settlers brought fireworks with them to the American colonies. Captain John Smith set off the very first fireworks in America in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608. It was John Adams who started the tradition of using fireworks, or “illuminations”, as they were then called, to celebrate Independence Day. On July 3, 1776 he wrote a letter to his wife about the Continental Congress adopting the Declaration of Independence. In the letter, he wrote, “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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Philadelphia held the first Fourth of July fireworks show the following year, along with shooting off guns and cannons. In 1789, fireworks were used for George Washington’s inauguration. At that point, fireworks were widely available for sale to the public. Over the years, it became common for politicians to use them to attract attention to their speeches, though early displays were relatively small by today’s standards. By the mid-1800s it was common throughout the country to have fireworks for the Fourth of July. A relatively long fireworks show was launched over the Brooklyn Bridge in 1892 to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas. Notable pyrotechnic shows were held in Washington D.C. in 1976 for the Bicentennial and New York in 1983 for the Brooklyn Bridge Centennial.  What many consider the greatest display was held over New York Harbor in 1986 for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.

The very early fireworks were nothing more than a big bang and a flash of orange light. It was the addition of various chemicals over the centuries that created the different colors and shapes that we know today. The Chinese early form of gunpowder consisted of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and carbon from charcoal. In the 1800s, Italian masters added various chemicals to create colors and the sunburst shape. Today, pyrotechnics are made up of two parts: the mortar that propels it up into the air and the shell that explodes in the air in a pre-determined shape. The mortar contains gunpowder, where currently, potassium nitrate is replaced with potassium chlorate, an oxidation agent, raising the combustion temperature of the fireworks to 2,000 °C (3,632 °F). This allows for the utilization of a variety of chemicals for colors. The shell holds gunpowder and nodules of chemicals, called stars, which give the firework its colors. Various metal salts burn to give off the different colors. Calcium salts burn orange, sodium salts burn yellow and copper salts burn blue.  If the stars are distributed randomly in the shell, they will explode in a circular shape. If they are packed in the shell in specific patterns, they will explode in specific shapes, such as a weeping willow or concentric circles. The chemical reaction of gases expanding faster than the speed of sound makes the loud boom.

Unfortunately, fireworks also have their downside. They can be very dangerous and cause damage, injuries, and even deaths. As early as 1731, a law was passed in Rhode Island banning the “mischievous” use of fireworks. By 1783, out of a growing concern for public safety, weapons for Independence Day celebrations were phased out and municipalities encouraged only official fireworks shows. From 1903 to 1907, 1,153 people were killed and 21,520 were injured in the United States from fireworks. In 1964, a Macy’s barge set up with fireworks for the Fourth of July show went off prematurely. Two people were killed and four were injured. A fireworks factory in the Netherlands exploded in 2000, destroying 400 houses and killing 17 people. As late as 2013, eight people died and 11,000 were injured in the U.S. A. alone. On July 4, 2015 Jason Pierre-Paul, a defensive end for the New York Giants, severely injured his hand trying to setoff some fireworks. He subsequently had to have his right index finger amputated, which significantly affected his career. Today, the sale of fireworks is illegal in many states, including New York. In those states where it is allowed, fireworks sold to consumers are supposed to contain less than 50 milligrams of gunpowder.

However, here in the city, we can enjoy some great pyrotechnics without the danger. Macy’s has had a Fourth of July fireworks show for over fifty years. The barges will be back on the East River this year, which means that some of it can be seen from the Rockefeller campus. The actual fireworks show starts at 9:20 p.m., but the television broadcast on NBC starts at 8:00 p.m. There are always a number of celebrities performing. This year they will be marking the 100th anniversary of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, with a rendition by Kelly Clarkson. Whatever you do during this holiday, be sure to be safe.


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