The first fireworks probably originated in China nearly 2,000 years ago. Science, alchemy, superstition, spirituality, and imperial legacy exploded. So did tall tales: Legend has it, a cook accidentally combined charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter while experimenting one day in the kitchen. Stored in a bamboo tube, the volatile mixture exploded upon contact with flames.
Fireworks spread like wildfire at celebrations spread from Asia to Europe and Africa. They arrived in Australia and the New World with European colonization.
“Two Nautch Girls with Sparklers by a Stream on the Night of the Diwali Festival” (1805), courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
“Little Nemo in Slumberland” panel, by Winsor McCay
“Royal Fire-workes and Illuminations in Whitehall and on the River Thames on Monday 15 May 1749,”
“Fireworks at Ryogoku (Ryogoku Hanabi),” from ” One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” by Utagawa Hiroshige, courtesy the Brooklyn Museum
“Coronation of Alexander II, Moscow, September 17, 1856: Fireworks Display before the Cadets’ Building, “(1856), by Henri Pierre Léon Pharamond Blanchard, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art
“The Rocket,” by Edward Middleton Manigault (1909), courtesy Columbus Museum of Art
from the Ming Dynasty book “Jin Ping Mei,” (1628-1643)
(1644) Image courtesy Germanisches Nationalmuseum
What’s really in fireworks? Take a look at these typically terrific Compound Interest graphics to get an idea.
Today, fireworks can be seen at celebrations around the world from Iran to Hong Kong to Cuba.
The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial frames fireworks during the 1973 Independence Day celebrations in Washington, D.C. Photograph by Joseph H. Bailey, National Geographic
Fireworks erupt in Tehran, honoring of the coronation of the last Shah of Iran. Photograph by Winfield Parks, National Geographic
A plume of fireworks surrounds a reveler at the festival of Parrandas in Remedios, Cuba. Photograph by Paolo Pellegrin, National Geographic
Fireworks for the annual celebration on May 8th of the liberation of Kerch, Ukraine, from Nazi Germany. Photograph by Gerd Ludwig, National Geographic
Fireworks above Victoria Harbour are part of the celebration of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. Photograph by Jodi Cobb, National Geographic
Fireworks illuminate the gardens of Château Vaux-le-Vicomte, Maincy, France. Photograph by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, National Geographic
Best Places to Feel the Boom!
Where is your favorite place to watch 4th of July fireworks?
While professionals put on magnificent shows around the nation, laws governing the amateur use of fireworks vary by state. Check out this map, and click here to find your state’s laws, and have a safe, happy holiday!