Home > Festivals > Diwali Special > Discovery
  
    
THE DISCOVERY OF FIREWORKS     AND    CRACKERS:
q

The festivals like Diwali remind us of the brilliant display of colourful fireworks which explode in the dark nights. The cities are famous for these. Nowadays, as a step to curb pollution and save the expenses, common community displayS of fireworks are becoming increasingly popular. Here, we will see how these fireworks originated. Fireworks and crackers are used the world over, only the occasion differs in different countries.

They lend a distinct colourful glittering aura to religious, political, social, sports and various other celebrations. But you would be surprised to know that they had their origin in a kitchen and it was quite unintentional! The period was the second century BC and the place was a community kitchen somewhere in the open fields of China. A forerunner of our own venerable Jiggs Kalra, while preparing the spicy meals, inadvertently dropped saltpeter (potassium nitrate, a substitute of salt and still used in the Chinese kitchens) into a cooking fire. It resulted in colourful and furious flames.

The master inventor cook made yet another colourful mistake and mixed together three commonly found ingredients: saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal and noticed that when ignited, the mixture burns with a force considerably more than the burning of a bunch of sticks and the colourful flames were really a spectacle to watch. This inadvertent "mistake" later led to the invention of firecrackers. The loud booming sounds associated with the new creation led the ancient Chinese to believe that this was a perfect device to scare off evil spirits and to herald in new years and announce battle victories. The "gung pow" as the new invention was called by the Chinese, was also used in weddings and family gatherings. Notice the similarity of the word 'gung pow' with 'gun powder'.

The first authentic reference to fireworks dates back to 1040 AD, when the Chinese wrapped the three ingredients in paper and added some more chemicals and made a "Fire Pill." This documentation is quite exhaustive and contains several recipes to make fireworks and many of these are similar to what is practised today. Actually how fireworks found their way to the west is shrouded in ambiguity but legend has it that Marco Polo brought this new invention to the west from one of his many trips to China and other countries in the east. Of course, the credit for the development of the military potential goes to the west. First into rockets, then into guns. According to another version the knowledge of making fireworks spread west, through Arabia in the seventh century. Some credit the Mongols with taking Chinese rockets and gunpowder to Europe around 1241. The first record of their use in Europe is around 1258 AD.

By the early 1300s, almost every country had its own version of what fireworks were meant to be. The Germans used fireworks in battles. The Chinese continued light fireworks in honor of celebrations, as did the British. Then almost any event - a birth, death, wedding, coronation or New Year celebration - became a fit occasion for the noisemakers. It was during the first part of the 1500s that the Military first introduced fireworks to the United States, lighting them as entertainment at major events. According to available records the response was so outstanding that jobs were created and factories opened everywhere, each offering a new and different form of fireworks.

Slowly over the years the westerners developed small gunpowder charges that were physically thrown. Eventually guns came out of the invention of fireworks, along with the introduction of fire powder. King Charles V had a great affinity for fireworks. He had many "fire-workers" in his royal staff, and whenever a victory was celebrated, it was done with fireworks. Fireworks soon became a favourite form of celebration and festivities in the west, especially in the royal courts. Fire-masters soon became a much sought after commodity. They were in great demand in royal families. Many of the fire-masters were killed or injured as they entertained others with their dangerous profession.

Fireworks have always been dangerous. It was in the 1890s that the "Society for Suppression of Unnecessary noise" was formed in the United States of America. This group persuaded people to stop using fireworks. It was in the beginning of the last century that the medical fraternity got into the act and chronicled the fatalities and injuries caused by fireworks. So, what was an accidental invention so many years ago still continues to be the cause of many a serious and tragic accidents.