Culture & History

The History of Fireworks

Universal Light
Universal Light
Universal Light
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As 2022 comes to a close and the festive season is right around the corner, Universal Light is back with some holiday spirits and renewed excitement to spread our passion for all things lighting.

This month, we’re looking at the history and making of fireworks, from their early discovery to modern-day approaches to display pyrotechnics.

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Why fireworks? The reasoning is quite simple!

After two years of many unexpected changes, the countdown is officially on! In just a few weeks, we will again get to see many cities worldwide celebrating the first moments of 2023 with extravagant fireworks displays. With that in mind, we decided to continue what we do best and spread the holiday spirit through some learnings about this beautiful aerial lighting spectacular.

So, how did fireworks come to be?

All Started With Gunpowder – An Accidental Discovery

It is unclear when the history of fireworks actually began. Generally credited to the Chinese, some scholars believe that it all started over 2000 years ago, in the 7th century, in the Chinese Tang Dynasty, while others argue that the discovery didn’t occur until the 9th century during the Chinese Song Dynasty.

Like many inventions, the discovery of the chemistry of fireworks is believed to be an accidental occurrence made by a Chinese cook when combining sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate, a food preservative commonly used in the kitchen at the time. The mixture then became what we know as gunpowder which was highly flammable and, when compacted into a tight enclosure, would explode.

At the time, the Chinese believed that these explosions had spiritual importance, which led to their adaptation with gunpowder packed in paper tubes, also known as ‘paper fireworks’, used to celebrate weddings and births or to keep evil spirits away.

Then, it was no surprise that gunpowder was quickly adopted for military applications. According to Denny & McFadzean (2019), the Chinese’ fire arrow’ was one of the first inventions with gunpowder being projected into the air. Come into use in the 11th century, the weapon consisted of an arrow and pouch of gunpowder attached near the arrowhead. Within the next 200 years, rocket cannons came to be, from which the technology became foundational to the later development of modern-day fireworks.

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The Spread of Gunpowder

Gunpowder, then, travelled West and made its way to Europe along the trade routes of the 12th and 13th centuries. While some historians cite Marco Polo as the one to bring the technology west, others credit Arabian diplomats and traders for the adoption. Like their Chinese counterparts, Western engineers also developed fireworks for military purposes, such as muskets and cannons; however, recreational applications for pyrotechnics also continued to progress. In the 1600s, aerial fireworks became more popular and were used to celebrate military victories, religious events or royal celebrations. At the time, fireworks were yet to develop colours and were quite monotonous with the signature yellow and orange hues.

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A Colourful Change

Fireworks with colours were developed in the early years of the 19th century and were made widely available in the 1830s. The magnificent update to the technology was credited to Italian inventors who added different metal substances such as aluminium, magnesium, barium, and more that could create everything from blue to red to green flames and sparks.

Today, with modern versions, fireworks come in various shapes with multiple colours and sounds. According to the American Chemical Society, current fireworks are typically made up of an aerial shell, a tube containing gunpowder and a number of small pods known as “stars”. Each of the stars makes one dot in the fireworks explosion. A firework also has a fuse that is lit to ignite the gunpowder. When the metal salts, which act as colourants, are heated, their atoms absorb energy and produce light as they lose excess energy. In addition, different chemicals have different amounts of energy, creating different colours.

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Enter Modern Fireworks‘ Designs

Now, many types of fireworks are available in the current market, from shopgoods kinds like firecrackers, fountain fireworks, ground spinners and firework missiles or rockets to aerial and/or display fireworks that require professional pyrotechnicians with sophisticated designs.

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The process of making a firework show:

  1. Every fireworks show starts with a design – it drives logistics and planning and creates concepts. Firework designers use paper, storyboards, or whiteboards to sketch their ideas.

  2. Then, it is location scouting. Location is crucial to a show’s success as it influences the aesthetics and safety of fireworks.

  3. Technique and technology are tailored depending on whether a firework is custom-made. The process of recreating fireworks in spectacular forms includes microchips being embedded in synchronised projectiles. Then, each mortar’s muzzle velocity and trajectory are adjusted on the fly.

  4. Finally, the design is brought to life in AutoCAD, with a master spreadsheet of the fireworks, their locations, and the pan and tilt angles they are to be fired at, which helps visualise the layout.

The Common Criticisms

Environmental concerns

Throughout its lifetime, fireworks have been widely adopted worldwide and embedded in our cultures as a celebratory tradition. However, one common criticism of fireworks is that they can cause severe air pollution over a short period. According to an Environmental Science & Technology research paper, firework-generated air pollution can cause serious health problems because certain pollutants, such as atmospheric particulate matter and SO2, can reach extremely high concentrations. Even with short-term exposure, these pollutants can cause acute respiratory ailments. Additionally, fireworks smoke plumes usually contain many toxins that seriously impact human health (Fan, Li & Liu, 2021).

Due to the negative influence of fireworks on air quality and human health, many controls and regulations are enacted around the world to reduce firework pollution, along with the development of Environmental Friendly fireworks, such as sulphur-free propellant charge, and smokeless fireworks (Fan, Li & Liu, 2021). While these fireworks can reduce emissions, how they’re being used and whether they positively affect air quality still need further studies.

Safety concerns

When it comes to pyrotechnics, one of the biggest concerns is the safety of their operators and spectators. The Australian Associated Press (2022) recently reported on an incident where nine people were injured at a family Christmas carol event at the Allambie Heights Oval in Sydney when a firework ricocheted into the crowd.

In Australia, due to safety concerns, many states like Queensland and NSW heavily restrict shopgoods fireworks, and the use of the explosive has been limited to public display only, professionally operated by licensed experts.

Nowadays, fireworks represent celebrations that make our eyes and souls swell with splendour as we watch the skies ablaze with exploding art. The way fireworks, especially display fireworks, look and sound has changed dramatically over the years. In order to produce the vivid and euphoric fireworks we see today, it takes the combined efforts of a myriad of experts. Hence, fireworks are so mesmerising to us because of their novelty. However, besides the history, science, aesthetics, and fun of fireworks, they can be extremely dangerous and negatively impact the environment, animals, and humans. Despite our adoration for fireworks, we must strive to make sure their use is less harmful and more eco-friendly in the future.

As the New Year celebration is approaching, take precautionary measures to ensure your own safety and that of your loved ones. Happy New Year!



Australian Associated Press. (2022, December 11). Children hurt as firework ricochets into crowd at Sydney carols. The Guardian. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/dec/12/children-hurt-as-firework-ricochets-into-crowd-at-sydney-carols

Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Firework. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/technology/firework

Fan, S., Li, Y., & Liu, C. (2021). Are Environmentally Friendly Fireworks Really “Green” for Air Quality? A Study from the 2019 National Day Fireworks Display in Shenzhen. Environmental Science & Technology, 55(6), 3520-3529.

Government, N. T. (2022, October 13). Fireworks. NT WorkSafe. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from https://worksafe.nt.gov.au/safety-and-prevention/fireworks

Queensland, R. S. and H. (2022, March 1). Unrestricted fireworks. Business Queensland. Retrieved December 10, 2022, from https://www.business.qld.gov.au/industries/mining-energy-water/explosives-fireworks/requirements/fireworks/unrestricted-fireworks#:~:text=In%20Queensland%2C%20the%20use%20of,may%20now%20use%20display%20fireworks.

Stempien, A. (n.d.). The evolution of Fireworks. The Evolution of Fireworks |. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://ssec.si.edu/stemvisions-blog/evolution-fireworks

Wiggers, K. (2018, July 4). Fireworks by Grucci explains how it designs, plans, and orchestrates a fireworks show. VentureBeat. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://venturebeat.com/media/fireworks-by-grucci-explains-how-it-designs-plans-and-orchestrates-a-fireworks-show/

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