Photography courtesy of Pyrotechnics Guild International
Annual July Fourth fireworks displays recall the post-Revolutionary War optimism in the air during the early days of our republic. John Adams was the catalyst behind the first Independence Day fireworks display when he wrote to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, “The day will be most memorable in the history
of America. 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 (fireworks) … from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
The first fireworks that celebrated our independence happened on July 4, 1777, in the singular orange color of fire itself. It would be another 60 years before Italian makers began to add strontium and barium flakes, introducing new colors. Lithium chloride produces a vibrant red, sodium nitrate burns dandelion yellow and copper chloride gives off a rich blue.
The accidental discovery of gunpowder was made around 800 A.D. when a Chinese alchemist mixed sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate in the quest for eternal life. The potassium nitrate provided oxygen, which, along with the sulfur, increased the speed and power of the burn, while the charcoal fueled the reaction. Soon, fans of fire and smoke were packing bamboo shoots with the black mixture and tossing them into bonfires, to explosive effect.