December 2002

Firecrackers! The word alone conjures up rich, visceral images: sudden ear-splitting pop-pop-popping, sparks flashing, acrid smoke drifting, kids running and laughing, hearts wildly beating. Who hasn’t jumped off out of his or her skin when a firecracker has unexpectedly – or sometimes even expectedly – gone off?

This is a quote from the book Firecrackers: The Art and History by Dotz, Mingo and Moyer.

Today I will go over the origin and history of firecrackers and its evolution throughout the centuries.

The first firecrackers were completely organic and probably accidental and this was from bamboo. Most likely, someone tending a fire ran short of fuel and decided to throw a few lengths of green bamboo. The knobby round reeds blackened, smoldered, and hissed, and then did something completely unexpected: they exploded. The result is a sharp reverberating blam! which, back then, was something alarming that had never been heard before.

Exploding bamboo made the timid cower, babies cry, and animals run away. Someone somewhere along the line must have figured that if it worked with mortals, it may well work to scare away immortals. The ancient Chinese believed in Nian, a particularly nasty evil spirit who liked to eat crops and sometimes people. Sometime long before history records the event, the Lunar New Year, or Chinese New Year, became a ceremonial occasion to throw bamboo into bonfires in order to scare Nian far away, thus ensuring a year of health, peace, prosperity, and happiness. Over the years, the Chinese added the popping of bamboo to other ceremonial occasions: didn’t evil spirits also need to be dispersed for weddings and funerals, for births, and even shop openings?

Experiments began to make a louder sounding firecracker, thus the evolution of firecrackers began. Bamboo was popular for a millennium or two, but was rendered obsolete with the discovery of paper and gunpowder. Chinese, however, still call modern bamboo pao chuk, or “burst bamboo.”

The invention of gunpowder was likely an accident. Here’s what historians surmise happened: A Chinese alchemist – or, some think, a cook – living a thousand years ago started mixing up sulfurous mixtures, stirring unbearably pungent compounds over a fire. As one dried into a fine black powder, something unexpected happened. With a sputtering hiss and roar, the entire mixture went up in a white-hot flame. Chinese Taoist alchemists eventually begun experimenting with the first crude gunpowder, perhaps as early as the 7th century C.E.

Firecrackers took their next evolutionary step. Instead of using bamboo, firecracker makers tried filling strong, stiff tubes of paper with gunpowder and adding a fuse. This was the beginning of the firecrackers as we know them, and this basic firecracker would remain essentially unchanged for many centuries.

Later on, the Chinese military modified the firecracker by adding fins for guidance, creating the first rocket in the form of self-propelling arrows. In the middle of the 13th century, word of this new war material started leaking into Europe by way of Dominican and Franciscan friars who had been traveling east to the Mongol court at Karakoram.

Italy first saw firecrackers in 1292 when world-traveler Marco Polo sent a large stash of them home. In Germany, another monk named Berthold Schwarz, also did experiments with gunpowder and – in Germany, anyway – he is credited with inventing the first gun and cannon. Pretty soon, firecrackers have been known all over the world.

Up to this point, I have talked to you about the origin and history of firecrackers, and its evolution. The allure of firecrackers is centuries old. Called the “fire drug” by the early Chinese, firecrackers jolt hearts and addict spirits, especially of preteen boys. Although for some the allure wanes with adulthood, for others the magic of firecrackers never dies.