He was looking for a chemical mixture—a potion or tonic perhaps—that would give him eternal youth. Instead, when it caught fire, the ninth-century Chinese alchemist discovered gunpowder. From there, our global obsession with fireworks was sparked. From then on, fireworks were used in celebrations to bring happiness and luck, and also to ward off evil spirits.
Almost a thousand years later, upon signing the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote to his wife that the day “ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” The first anniversary of Independence Day, in 1777, was indeed full of pomp and parade and illuminations. The fireworks were slightly more subdued than the ones that are used today, since colored fireworks, mixed with strontium or barium, would only be discovered in Italy fifty years later. For the first American Independence Day, orange would have to do.
Fireworks, hypnotic and sublime, are used to celebrate national independence around the globe, as signs of sovereignty or political autonomy. They are the window dressing of the modern state. The exploding rainbows are a tribute to the bloody wars that made the celebration possible. They are a reminder that—under that same sky and upon that same land to which the ashes float—we are kinfolk. Read More