How the history of Chinese fireworks began
The history of making fireworks began with the ancient Chinese Daoists in the Han dynasty in 202 BC. During the Han dynasty, there was a religion called, Daoism (Dow-is-em). Daoists studied a form of science called alchemy and they were called alchemists.
The ancient Chinese emperors of the Han dynasty went to the Daoists and said, “We want to live forever.” The alchemists began looking for all kinds of things that the ancient Chinese emperors could take to make them live forever. Two of the things they found were potassium nitrate (saltpeter) and sulfur. Now, although these two things cannot make you live forever and by themselves, they do not make fireworks, without the work of the Daoists and their alchemy, we may not have fireworks today.
The history of Chinese fireworks as we know them today
The Han dynasty lasted until 220 AD without anyone understanding what else was needed to create fireworks. It wasn’t until the Song dynasty in the eleventh century, that the last thing was found to turn potassium nitrate and sulfur into fireworks – charcoal.
You see, potassium nitrate is a chemical that makes something burn. It gives fireworks the energy to blast out or explode from a container. When you hear the pops and booms from fireworks going off, that’s the potassium nitrate working.
Sulfur is a gas that works to make the fireworks spray from a container. It’s what makes fireworks smell like rotten eggs. Ooo, yuck.
Charcoal is made when you burn wood very slowly. It’s what burns when a lit match or fire touches the fireworks.
In the beginning, the fireworks were quite simple. After mixing the three items together, the ancient Chinese in the Song dynasty would throw some of it into a fire. The fireworks made a lot of sparks and popping sounds happen. Think magicians and wizards.
After a while, the ancient Chinese found a better way of using the fireworks. They hollowed out pieces of wood or bamboo tubes, stuffed them full of the fireworks, and threw them into a fire.
As the wood and bamboo tubes burned, the fireworks in the end of the tube caught fire, the tubes flew into the air, and the fireworks exploded from the fire and heat. Sparks shooting out of the tubes could be seen flying out into the night sky.
Oh, yeah, fireworks!
The fireworks that we see today are made from the same things – potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal – as those made in the Song dynasty. However, there is one big difference: our fireworks come in many different colors. The sparks from the first fireworks were white. You must add other metals, such as copper and iron, to make the multi-colored lights that we see today when we watch fireworks.