Friday, July 5, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #79: Fireworks Edition

I think fireworks are a fitting topic for this week’s Fun Friday Facts, since it’s the fifth of July and some of you are still hospitalized with blown-off fingers. Explosives and alcohol don’t mix, kids.

Seriously, though, in 2012 over 5,000 American found themselves in emergency rooms between June 22 and July 22, seeking treatment for fireworks-related injuries, mostly burns to the face, hands or head. At least one-fifth of those injuries were due to misuse of bottle rockets (ouch) and sparklers (keep that away from your face, Johnny). Fireworks also caused about 17,800 fires that did about $32 million in property damage. I suddenly don’t feel so bad about not liking them very much.

Legend has it that fireworks originated in China. I say “legend” because the Internet doesn’t seem to be sure whether that happened in the 7th, 8th, 9th or 10th centuries, and one website even goes so far as to admit that fireworks may have been invented in ancient India or Arabia, where lots of inventing was going on back in the day. Gunpowder was invented in the 9th century, by alchemists looking for a path to immortality. Gunpowder is a key ingredient in fireworks, so let’s go with that. Their earliest use was presumably to scare away evil spirits.

Everything they did back then was to scare away evil spirits.

Fireworks came to Europe in the 14th century, with Marco Polo according to legend, but more likely as a result of commerce along the Silk Road. In the 15th century Italy became the center of European fireworks manufacture, and fireworks became a regular part of most celebrations, although not as integral as they are today. Figures that spewed fireworks, such as fire-breathing dragons, became a common part of celebrations.

In the 18th century, fireworks became far more elaborate and large displays became common, especially among royals like Louis XV and Czar Peter the Great, who used a five-hour fireworks display to celebrate the birth of his son. Common people also used fireworks to celebrate things they liked, especially in the American colonies, which explains our almost hereditary national obsession with blowing things up.

We get it from the British.

It was the Italians who, in the 1830s, figured out that adding trace amounts of metals and minerals to the gunpowder in fireworks makes pretty colors. Sodium makes them yellow; copper, blue; barium, green; strontium, red; and calcium, orange. Gold and silver might even be added for long, trailing lines that reach almost to the earth; titanium is used for sparkles and magnesium perchlorate for loud, bangs and crackles.

Pink remains a mystery.
Image credit: Kurume Shimin

Fireworks manufacturers form these chemical compounds into little pellets called stars, and arrange the starts in patterns inside the firework casing to create patterns. When the firework explodes, the pattern appears in the sky. The first pattern fireworks were used in Washington, DC to greet troops returning from the First Gulf War in the early 1990s.]

These are hearts. I think they look a little lumpy.
Image credit: Rama