Tag Archives: Firework History

Early Fireworks – A History

Today’s rockets are remarkable collections of human ingenuity that have their roots in the science and technology of the past. They are natural outgrowths of literally thousands of years of experimentation and research on rockets and rocket propulsion.

One of the first devices to successfully employ the principles essential to rocket flight was a wooden bird. The writings of Aulus Gellius, a Roman, tell a story of a Greek named Archytas who lived in the city of Tarentum, now a part of southern Italy. Somewhere around the year 400 B.C., Archytas mystified and amused the citizens of Tarentum by flying a pigeon made of wood. Escaping steam propelled the bird suspended on wires. The pigeon used the action-reaction principle, which was not stated as a scientific law until the 17th century.

About three hundred years after the pigeon, another Greek, Hero of Alexandria, invented a similar rocket-like device called an aeolipile. It, too, used steam as a propulsive gas.

Hero mounted a sphere on top of a water kettle. A fire below the kettle turned the water into steam, and the gas traveled through pipes to the sphere. Two L-shaped tubes on opposite sides of the sphere allowed the gas to escape, and in doing so gave a thrust to the sphere that caused it to rotate.

Just when the first true rockets appeared is unclear. Stories of early rocket-like devices appear sporadically through the historical records of various cultures. Perhaps the first true rockets were accidents. In the first century A.D., the Chinese reportedly had a simple form of gunpowder made from saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal dust. To create explosions during religious festivals, they filled bamboo tubes with a mixture and tossed them into fires. Perhaps some of those tubes failed to explode and instead skittered out of the fires, propelled by the gases and sparks produced by the burning gunpowder.

The Chinese began experimenting with the gunpowder filled tubes. At some point, they attached bamboo tubes to arrows and launched them with bows. Soon they discovered that these gunpowder tubes could launch themselves just by the power produced from the escaping gas. The true rocket was born.

The date reporting the first use of true rockets was in 1232. At this time, the Chinese and the Mongols were at war with each other. During the battle of Kai-Keng, the Chinese repelled the Mongol invaders by a barrage of “arrows of flying fire.” These fire-arrows were a simple form of a solid-propellant rocket. A tube, capped at one end, contained gunpowder. The other end was left open and the tube was attached to a long stick. When the powder was ignited, the rapid burning of the powder produced fire, smoke, and gas that escaped out the open end and produced a thrust. The stick acted as a simple guidance system that kept the rocket headed in one general direction as it flew through the air. It is not clear how effective these arrows of flying fire were as weapons of destruction, but their psychological effects on the Mongols must have been formidable.

Following the battle of Kai-Keng, the Mongols produced rockets of their own and may have been responsible for the spread of rockets to Europe. All through the 13th to the 15th centuries there were reports of many rocket experiments. In England, a monk named Roger Bacon worked on improved forms of gunpowder that greatly increased the range of rockets. In France, Jean Froissart found that more accurate flights could be achieved by launching rockets through tubes. Froissart’s idea was the forerunner of the modern bazooka. Joanes de Fontana of Italy designed a surface-running rocket-powered torpedo for setting enemy ships on fire.

By the 16th century rockets fell into a time of disuse as weapons of war, though they were still used for fireworks displays, and a German fireworks maker, Johann Schmidlap, invented the “step rocket,” a multi-staged vehicle for lifting fireworks to higher altitudes. A large sky rocket (first stage) carried a smaller sky rocket (second stage). When the large rocket burned out, the smaller one continued to a higher altitude before showering the sky with glowing cinders. Schmidlap’s idea is basic to all rockets today that go into outer space.

Nearly all uses up to this time were for warfare or fireworks, but there is an interesting old Chinese legend that reported the use of rockets as a means of transportation. With the help of many assistants, a lesser-known Chinese official named Wan-Hu assembled a rocket- powered flying chair. Attached to the chair were two large kites, and fixed to the kites were forty- seven fire-arrow rockets.

On the day of the flight, Wan-Hu sat himself on the chair and gave the command to light the rockets. Forty-seven rocket assistants, each armed with torches, rushed forward to light the fuses. In a moment, there was a tremendous roar accompanied by billowing clouds of smoke. When the smoke cleared, Wan-Hu and his flying chair were gone. No one knows for sure what happened to Wan-Hu, but it is probable that if the event really did take place, Wan-Hu and his chair were blown to pieces. Fire-arrows were as apt to explode as to fly.

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Catherine Wheel Fireworks – A Gruesome History

Catherine Wheel – everyone knows them as a traditional firework, but the origins are much more gruesome than that. The original Catherine Wheel was the torture instrument on which St Catherine was martyred in the middle ages.

St Catherine is a Christian saint and martyr who is claimed to have been a noted scholar in the early 4th century. In the beginning of the fifteenth century, it was rumoured that she had spoken to Saint Joan of Arc. The Orthodox Churches venerate her as a “great martyr”

It is said that she visited her contemporary the Roman Emperor Maxentius in an effort to convince him of the error of his ways in persecuting Christians. She succeeded in converting his wife, the Empress, and many pagan wise men whom the Emperor sent to dispute with her, all of whom were subsequently martyred. Upon the failure of the Emperor to win Catherine over, he ordered her to be put in prison; and when the people who visited her converted, she was condemned to death on the breaking wheel (an instrument of torture). According to legend, the wheel itself broke when she touched it, so she was beheaded instead.

Ever since Catherine has been associated with spinning wheels and eventually Catherine Wheel Fireworks – which is how she is best remembered now, immortalised in a beautiful spinning display of colour and light.

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Origin of Fireworks

A firework can be defined as a combustible and/or explosive device for producing a striking display of light and/or a loud noise.

Fireworks are used all around the world every day in celebrations ranging from small private birthday parties to state sponsored events. The quality and performance of fireworks has changed a lot since their accidental discovery, and now take on many shapes, forms, and an almost infinite range of colours. Here is a brief outline of the progression of fireworks over the centuries.

It is still unclear exactly when fireworks were first invented. Some think that fireworks first originated in China around 2,000 years ago. The most popular legend has it that fireworks were discovered by accident when a Chinese cook working in a field kitchen happened to mix charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter (which were all common kitchen items at the time). The mixture burned and when compressed in an enclosed space, exploded.

However, another school of thought places the discovery at some stage in the 9th century during the Song dynasty (960-1279), although this could easily be confusion over the discovery of gunpowder by the cook in the field kitchen and the invention of the firecracker.

Most often credited with the invention of firecrackers – about 1000 years ago – is a monk called Li Tian. He was from the city of Liuyang in Hunan Province, China. This area is still to this day the largest producer of fireworks anywhere in the world. During the Song Dynasty, a temple was built to worship Li Tian and the people of China still celebrate the invention of the firecracker every April 18th by offering sacrifices to Li Tian and setting off fireworks.

In China firecrackers were thought to have the power to ward off evil spirits and demons that are scared by the loud bangs. Firecrackers are still very much in use today at most events such as births, weddings, funerals and birthdays. Chinese New Year is a very popular event that is synonymous with the use of firecrackers, which are said to bring in the New Year free of evil spirits.

It is usually Marco Polo who is credited with introducing gunpowder to Europe in the 13th century, although many historians prefer the theory that the Crusaders brought the black powder to Europe as they returned from their wars in the Middle East.
During the Renaissance, two distinctly separate European schools of pyrotechnic thought emerged, one in Italy and the other at Nurnberg in Germany. The Italians focused on elaborate effects, stunning their audiences with dazzling displays, while the German school stressed scientific advancement. Both Italy and Germany added significantly to the further development of fireworks, and by the mid-17th century fireworks were used as entertainment on an unprecedented scale in Europe, proving popular at resorts and public gardens and gatherings.

The English were also captivated with fireworks, in 1487 fireworks were used at the coronation of Elizabeth of York (bride of Henry VII) – where a “dragon spew out fire into the Thames”. Anne Boleyn also witnessed fireworks at her coronation where the fire masters were described as ‘wild men casting fire and making a hideous noise’.

The popularity of fireworks thrived in Great Britain during the sovereignty of Queen Elizabeth I. William Shakespeare mentions fireworks in several of his plays, and fireworks were so much enjoyed by the Queen herself that she created the position of “Fire Master of England” and King James II was so pleased with the fireworks display at his coronation, that he actually knighted his Fire Master.

Fireworks have certainly come a long way since their invention, and we believe that there is a lot more to discover and a lot more new and exciting advancements awaiting us in the future. So what’s next in the world of fireworks? Watch this space!

More from the learning centre at Epic Fireworks

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