Target Health Blog

Short History of Fireworks to Welcome the Lunar New Year

January 20, 2020

History of Medicine

Lunar New Year Fireworks Seen Around the World
Photo credit: by BumFluff2009 - 2016 Fireworks, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Regarding health, fireworks create air pollution. If fireworks debris falls into water, the chemicals from the debris, are unhealthy for fish and plant life.

Fireworks were originally invented in China. One of the cultural practices for fireworks was to scare away evil spirits. Cultural events and festivities such as the Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival were and still are times when fireworks are guaranteed sights. China is the largest manufacturer and exporter of fireworks in the world. The earliest fireworks came from China during the Song dynasty (960-1279). Fireworks were used to accompany many festivities. The art and science of firework making has developed into an independent profession. In China, pyrotechnicians were respected for their knowledge of complex techniques in mounting firework displays. Chinese people originally believed that the fireworks could expel evil spirits and bring about luck and happiness.

During the Han dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE), people threw bamboo stems into a fire to produce an explosion with a loud sound. In later times, gunpowder packed into small containers was used to mimic the sounds of burning bamboo. These exploding bamboo stems and gunpowder firecrackers were interchangeable known as baozhu or baogan. By the 12th and possibly the 11th century, the term baozhang  was used to specifically refer to gunpowder firecrackers. During the Song dynasty (960-1279), many of the common people could purchase various kinds of fireworks from market vendors. Grand displays of fireworks were also known to be held. In 1110, a large fireworks display in a martial demonstration was held to entertain Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100-1125) and his court. A record from 1264 states that a rocket-propelled firework went off near the Empress Dowager Gong Sheng and startled her during a feast held in her honor by her son Emperor Lizong of Song (r. 1224-1264). Rocket propulsion was common in warfare, as evidenced by the Huolongjing compiled by Liu Bowen (1311-1375) and Jiao Yu (fl. c. 1350-1412). In 1240 the Arabs acquired knowledge of gunpowder and its uses from China. A Syrian named Hasan al-Rammah wrote of rockets, fireworks, and other incendiaries, using terms that suggested he derived his knowledge from Chinese sources, such as his references to fireworks as "Chinese flowers".

In regards to colored fireworks, this was derived and developed from earlier (possibly Han or soon thereafter) Chinese application of chemical substances to create colored smoke and fire. Such application appears in the Huolongjing (14th century) and Wubeizhi (preface of 1621, printed 1628), which describes recipes, several of which used low-nitrate gunpowder, to create military signal smokes with various colors. In the Wubei Huolongjing; Ming, completed after 1628), two formulas appear for firework-like signals, the sanzhangju and baizhanglian, that produces silver sparkles in the smoke. In the Huoxilue; 1753) by Zhao Xuemin, there are several recipes with low-nitrate gunpowder and other chemical substances to tint flames and smoke. These included, for instance, arsenical sulphide for yellow, copper acetate (verdigris) for green, lead carbonate for lilac-white, and mercurous chloride (calomel) for white. The Chinese pyrotechnics have been written about by foreign authors such as Antoine Caillot (1818) who wrote "It is certain that the variety of colours which the Chinese have the secret of giving to flame is the greatest mystery of their fireworks." or Sir John Barrow (ca. 1797) who wrote "The diversity of colours indeed with which the Chinese have the secret of cloathing fire seems to be the chief merit of their pyrotechny."

Fireworks were produced in Europe by the 14th century, becoming popular by the 17th century. Lev Izmailov, ambassador of Peter the Great, once reported from China: "They make such fireworks that no one in Europe has ever seen." In 1758, the Jesuit missionary Pierre Nicolas le Cheron d'Incarville, living in Beijing, wrote about the methods and composition on how to make many types of Chinese fireworks to the Paris Academy of Sciences, which revealed and published the account five years later. Amedee-Fran?ois Frezier published his revised work Traite des feux d'artice pour le spectacle (Treatise on Fireworks) in 1747 (originally 1706), covering the recreational and ceremonial uses of fireworks, rather than their military uses. Music for the Royal Fireworks was composed by George Frideric Handel in 1749 to celebrate the Peace treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which had been declared the previous year.

Bertholet in 1786 discovered that oxidations with potassium chlorate resulted in a violet emission. Subsequent developments revealed that oxidations with the chlorates of barium, strontium, copper, and sodium result in intense emission of bright colors. The isolation of metallic magnesium and aluminium marked another breakthrough as these metals burn with an intense silvery light.

An illustration of a fireworks display from the 1628-1643 edition of the Ming Dynasty novel Jin Ping Mei.
Graphic credit: This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain; Wikipedia Commons

An 18th-century illustration of Chinese fireworks from an English abstract of an account of China by French Jesuit Pierre Nicolas d'Incarville
Graphic credit: By Unknown - English abstract by an anonymous author (1764) of Pierre Nicolas d'Incarville (1963). Maniere de faire les Fleurs dans les Feux d'Artifice Chinois.Reproduced in Joseph Needham (1986). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 5: Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 7: Military Technology: The Gunpowder Epic. Cambridge University Press. Page 142., Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons

Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks, Overture

The Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351) is a suite for wind instruments composed by George Frideric Handel in 1749 under contract of George II of Great Britain for the fireworks in London's Green Park on 27 April 1749. Handel had dual citizenship: Germany and Great Britain.

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