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Who doesn't love fireworks?!
China is generally-accepted as the place where it all started. It is thought that, as early as 200 B.C., the Chinese had already stumbled upon a sort of natural firecracker: They would roast bamboo, which explodes with a bang when heated due to its hollow air pockets, in order to ward off evil spirits.
At some point between 600 and 900 A.D., Chinese alchemists—perhaps hoping to discover an elixir for immortality—mixed together saltpeter (potassium nitrate, then a common kitchen seasoning), charcoal, sulfur and other ingredients, unwittingly yielding an early form of gunpowder. The Chinese began stuffing the volatile substance into bamboo shoots that were then thrown into the fire to produce a loud blast. The first fireworks were born.
Soon, paper tubes came to replace the bamboo stalks, and the Chinese discovered that their fiery sticks could be used for more than just scaring away ghosts and celebrating special events. By the 10th century, they had developed crude bombs and begun attaching firecrackers to arrows that rained down on their adversaries during military engagements. Two hundred years later, they learned how to fire explosives into the air and guide them toward enemy targets, essentially building the first rockets. Used outside the field of battle, the same technology allowed fireworks masters to put on the first aerial displays.
In the 13th century, gunpowder samples and formulas began trickling into Europe and Arabia, transported by diplomats, explorers and Franciscan missionaries. Western scientists, metallurgists and military leaders threw themselves into making the substance even more potent and building powerful weapons such as cannons and muskets.
Meanwhile, the softer side of gunpowder—fireworks—became increasingly popular first to commemorate military victories and later to enhance public celebrations and religious ceremonies. In medieval England, fireworks experts were known as firemasters. Their assistants, called “green men” because they wore caps of leaves to protect their heads from sparks, doubled as jesters, entertaining the crowd with jokes as they prepared the displays.
By the time of the Renaissance, pyrotechnic schools were training fireworks artists across Europe, particularly in Italy, which became famous for its elaborate and colorful displays. It was the Italians who in the 1830s became the first to incorporate trace amounts of metals and other additives, creating the bright, multihued sparks and sunbursts seen in contemporary fireworks shows. Earlier displays only featured booming sounds, orange flashes and faint golden traces of light.
Fireworks gained an especially strong following among European rulers, who used them to enchant their subjects and illuminate their castles on important occasions. In England, the earliest recorded display took place on Henry VII’s wedding day in 1486. In 1685, James II’s royal firemaster achieved such a dazzling presentation for the king’s coronation that he received a knighthood. French kings regularly put on spectacular displays at Versailles and other palaces, while Czar Peter the Great of Russia arranged a five-hour pyrotechnic extravaganza to mark the birth of his son.
Europeans brought their knowledge and appreciation of fireworks to the New World. According to legend, Captain John Smith set off the first display in Jamestown in 1608. Records show that some American colonists may have gotten a little carried away: A spate of firecracker-related pranks in Rhode Island became such a public nuisance that officials banned the “mischievous use of pyrotechnics” in 1731.
On July 3, 1776, the day before the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife in which he presaged the role of fireworks in Fourth of July celebrations. “The day will be most memorable in the history of America,” he predicted. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade…bonfires and illuminations [a term for fireworks]…from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
Titus Mountain hosts several fireworks events throughout the year. On Saturday evening, February 6th, we will be adding a special display at the conclusion of the Empire State Winter Games SlopeStyle and Big Air competitions.
On New Year’s Eve, for the first time ever, we handed the torch to Al LaValley of Majestic Fireworks. His inaugural performance left everybody breathless and we’re happy to announce that he’ll be back to light-up the sky over Titus on February 6th! Al is passionate about his craft and he loves to talk about it, so we thought we’d pick his brain a little before his next performance:
How do fireworks work?
A firework is generally a sphere or ball shell with a lift charge placed on the bottom. The lift charge is a calibrated measure of black powder based on the weight and diameter of the shell it is attached to. The proper calibration will allow the shell to reach its apex before the timed fuse reaches the core of the shell which detonates the shell. The apex is based on 100 feet per inch diameter of the shell so, for instance, a 6-inch diameter shell will reach its apex at approximately 600-ft. altitude at it’s time of discharge.
What types of fireworks are there?
Most of the shells are referred to as “ball” shells in the industry, there are also “canister” shells which are a cylindrical shape and contain several different effects that are put together much like stacking hockey pucks with a timed fuse that runs up the center. These shells are very expensive and only a few are generally used per show because of the cost.
What is your favorite kind of firework?
This is a tough one because I like so many of them. I would have to say that one of my favorites is the Golden Titanium Willow because of the loud percussion when it opens and the time that it burns. They usually stay burning almost all the way to the ground. My other favorites are the large multi-color shells.
What do you think draws people to a fireworks show?
The loud explosions that you can feel in your chest, and the remarkable colors that are produced from the different mixes of the chemical compounds inside the shells.
Any tips on the best way to watch a fireworks show?
Live and in-person, of course. Close enough to feel them, but just like at the movies, you do not want to be too close because you will be looking straight up the entire time.
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