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Who Invented Fireworks?

Updated on November 14, 2010

Fireworks, of a kind, preceded the invention of gunpowder. These were no more than patterned displays of fire, for which there is evidence both in the West and the Far East. Thus a Chinese poem of the seventh century A.D. says:

Flames of fire move round the wheel,
Peach blossoms spring forth from the falling branches.
Clouds of smoke move around the house,
And the fairy lake reflects the floating lights.

Conceivably these fireworks were made with gunpowder, but it does not seem probable, there being no firm evidence (Wang Ling, 'The Invention and Use of Gunpowder in China', Isis, Nos. 109 and 110, 1947) that gunpowder had been invented or developed in China by the tenth century A.D.

Both in Europe and China the extensive use of gunpowder in fire displays followed its use in war, as an incendiary if not as a propellant. China has total priority. The Chinese were using gunpowder as a war incendiary by A.D. 969, after which they were certainly making fireworks and giving entertainments with them by A.D. 1103. A full description exists of a splendid many-colored display of that year.

European evidence-for using gunpowder goes back to the thirteenth century A.D., culminating in a composition suitable for use in artillery by the fourteenth century. After this gunpowder was applied to fireworks by the early years of the sixteenth century, if not before; and pyrotechnic art appears to have developed first among the Florentines and the Sienese. Thus some of the basic terminology of fireworks derives from the Italian - rocket, for example, is from the Italian rocchetta. The English engineer Cyprian Lucar wrote in 1588 of fireworks 'for triumph as well as war'; and it appears, as one might expect, that fire effects by gunpowder were added to festivals at which bonfires or fire displays had been customary. There is evidence for the association of fireworks with the old figure of May Day and the May Cycle, the Green Man, a kind of scapegoat (referred to in this volume under Wreaths). The fire man or Green Man took part in the water pageants of the Lord Mayor of London, and there is record of green men wreathed in ivy leading a procession to Chester Races on St George's Day (23 April) in 1610 and scattering fireworks as they went. Guy Fawkes Day celebrated with bonfires and fireworks on 5 November seems to be no more than the bonfire festival of Halloween (31 October) All Saints' Day (1 November) and All Souls' Day (2 November) given new vitality by the Gunpowder Plot.

In England firework manufacture was well advanced by the early years of the seventeenth century. The methods of the day are set out in the Pyrotechnia, or a discourse of artificial fireworks for pleasure of John Babington (1625). Babington's title page shows examples of quite large mechanical displays with serpents and St George and the Dragon, systems of animated figures illuminated with fireworks, an illuminated royal monogram, a device for testing the force of gunpowder and a diagram of the method for filling rockets. After dealing with these and other matters in his book he gives many sets of instructions for special displays such as 'How to make two Dragons to meet each other, from several caves, which shall send forth their fire to each other with great violence' and 'How to make a Bucklar which shall cast forth a hundred fisgigs, every one making his report'.

Fireworks continued to be an essential accompaniment of occasions of national rejoicing. At least one such an occasion has left a legacy which still gives us pleasure, in Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks composed for the London display in 1749 which celebrated the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, ending the War of the Austrian Succession.

The provision of the fireworks for these national functions was the business of the ordnance authorities. Private firework manufacture was frowned upon and many restraints were imposed, varying from local prohibitions, in the City of London, for example, to an Act of 1695 which forbade firework manufacture altogether. This merely pushed the business underground, where it went on in volume enough to meet the very large public demand, both for private use and for display in the public pleasure gardens. This unsatisfactory state of affairs persisted until some relaxation was allowed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, by way of the granting of licenses for the storing of gunpowder and made-up goods. However, it took the Acts of 1860 and 1875 to bring firework manufacture into the position of a respectable and well-regulated industry, working not only for the frivolities of the firework display, but for more serious demands of peace and war, by way of sound, color signaling, and the propulsion of rockets.

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