The Chinese are usually given credit for the invention of fireworks. In addition, records show that they also developed true rockets used both for military and display purposes. It is interesting to note that the firecracker appears to have been the first actual firework that was developed.
Some sources refer to the use of bamboo as a fuel for fires as being responsible for the idea of a firecracker type device. When green pieces of bamboo are placed in a roaring fire, the water and air trapped in these fast growing plants tend to overheat and explode. The loud reports of these bursting bamboo pieces were sure to have frightened both human and animals alike. Soon the Chinese began to use these green bamboo pieces in their celebrations of the New Year. It seems that the sounds of the exploding bamboo were thought to scare away evil spirits.
Chinese alchemists soon discovered that a mixture of charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur would produce a substance with fairly powerful explosive qualities. Yes, what we know as gunpowder was invented. The mixture was placed in some of the open pieces of bamboo and thrown into the fire. Now they had a real explosion! It is also theorized that one of these powder filled bamboo tubes may have flown out of the fire, giving the observers a look at the action-reaction properties of powder burning out of only one end of a tube.
Over time the Chinese honed their skills and advanced past the idea of the firecracker. Soon primitive rockets, called fire arrows, were developed. A tube that was capped on one end was mounted on a long stick. The powder in the tube burned and the resulting thrust out of the open end of the tube propelled the fire arrow upward. Soon this concept was utilized by the Chinese military. Of note is one battle with the Mongols where thousands of fire arrows were shot at the invading Mongol army. No concise reports of casualties inflected were recorded, but one can assume that the sight of thousands of these fire arrows must have had a frightening effect on the invading troops.
In addition to the military uses of rockets, the Chinese also developed the means to add different colors to the bursting payloads of the rockets. Thus, aerial fireworks displays were born. Utilized in holiday celebrations, weddings, and other occasions, spectacular fireworks became a normal part of Chinese life.
One source cites a Chinese manuscript dated 1040 AD that details the actual construction of fireworks rockets. Little is different in the manufacturing techniques or the ingredients listed in that centuries old record when compared to modern fireworks. Some things never change.
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