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The Fire Chemical - History of Fireworks(Part One)

One day about two thousand years ago, a Chinese cook was cleaning up his field kitchen after serving dinner in the ancient Chinese version of a mess hall. He scooped up some of the loose materials scattered around and tossed them into the still smoldering cook fire. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion that gave off an orange glow. His curiosity overcame his fear, and he experimented a bit and discovered that when he mixed common saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal they would explode. Gunpowder was born, and the whole course of human history went careening off in an entirely new direction.

It is possible that it didn’t actually happen that way. There are some that claims it was really an Arab scientist or a Buddhist monk in India. The invention of gunpowder, and its subsequent development into both a source of awe and entertainment and a powerful new weapon of war, is not known for certain. There are several theories and each has it advocates. The accidental discovery by the observant Chinese cook is one of the traditional myths that have come down through history and have been repeated so often they are actually taken as fact.

China is the most logical place to have been the birthplace of gunpowder and fireworks because it is known that both were used there as early as 200 B.C. Very early Chinese celebrations were highlighted by firecrackers. These were made by mixing the three elements into a powder, and stuffing them into a bamboo tube, and sealing the ends. It is also thought that the explosive firework began around this same time with the discovery that if one end of the tube was left open, the resulting explosion would propel an object out of the tube. Taoist monks were credited with tinkering with the proportions of the mixture to create the best combinations for explosive fireworks.

The early records favor China as the birthplace of fireworks in another way. They seem to have been the first to see the military advantages of gunpowder. The earliest weapons using gunpowder were little more than giant firecrackers tied to the ends of arrows which were shot at the enemy. Not only were these capable of starting fires but the noise of the explosions, which were not something the enemy was used to hearing, could be very frightening. It was a very primitive time and superstition was the rule. There are even records of a weapon called Ground Rats. Cylinders filled with large rats would be shot over at the enemy army. Upon hitting the ground they burst open, releasing the rats that spread panic among the men and their horses.

There is no real way to ever know for sure just who gets credit for that first big bang. The Chinese gave it name a long time ago. They called it “huo yao” which meant “The Fire Chemical.” It is possible that gunpowder and fireworks developed in several early cultures around the same time.

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