The 4th Of July
The 4th of July is famous for a few things. People get together and have barbecues, complete with food, and good friends. Later in the day, fireworks displays occur. Some people put on their own shows, while others travel to see the displays that are put on by their communities. What you may not know is that fireworks have been around for over 1,000 years before the first 4th of July. The first fireworks came from a 2,000-year-old Chinese quest for immortality.
In the early 9th century in China, alchemy was very popular. The goal of alchemy was to produce some type of substance that would prolong life, and potentially cheat death. Unfortunately, in the search for alchemy, the Chinese never did find a concoction that would defy death. What they did discover was an explosion that would one day change the way that we celebrate 4th of July and a number of other special occasions. They didn’t immediately create the twinkling lights that you see in the sky, but they did create the “boom.” Sadly, a Chinese chemist experience great misfortune in the process.
For an explosion to occur, three components are necessary. First, there needs to be fuel. It needs to be a chemical that has a long chain of molecules with very strong bonds. There also needs to be a chemical called an oxidizer. This is what breaks down those bonds, and releases a tremendous amount of energy. Finally, heat is necessary to get the explosive reaction started.
The Chinese Chemist’s Formula
When the Chinese chemist was trying to produce a life=prolonging powder, he used a combination of charcoal, potassium nitrate, which was a common food preservative at the time, and a strong oxidizer. Had he used sulfur, it would have lowered the ignition temperature of the charcoal. The chemist used a bit of heat to cause a reaction, but it had disastrous results.
According to one Chinese text dating from the middle of the 9th century, the chemist who embarked on making this life-prolonging powder suffered. The text said that the experiment resulted in smoke and flames, which caused the scientists’ hands and faces to become burned. The house where the experiments were taking place burned to the ground.
The scientists tried another method, and they stuffed the active ingredients into bamboo or paper tubes. This was sued in religious ceremonies and at the beginning of the new year. It was believed that when the concoction was thrown into a fire, the loud noise that it made would scare off evil spirits. It would be years before the pyrotechnic displays would accompany the loud bang.
More Than Fireworks
It turned out that the chemistry experiment performed did more than discover the earliest form of fireworks. It also created gunpowder, which was very important during warfare. By the 13th century, gunpowder was used to propel rockets that were painted like dragons and were shot toward the invading Mongols. It was during this century that Marco Polo brought the gunpowder back to Europe.
Making War Dangerous
It was the invention of the gunpowder that was pretty much done accidentally, changed the face of war forever. Rather than the hand-to-hand combat that was used during battle, gun powder brought along the gun, which made war much more dangerous and much more deadly. Cannons, guns, and later much more dangerous weapons of war were created. This discovery may be significant to some, but to others, the invention of these weapons has increased the potential for loss of life.
The fireworks displays that we see today use the early components discovered by the Chinese chemist all those years ago, and they added some modern colorful chemicals to put on the fantastic light show in the sky. The loud bang that you hear in the sky during the fireworks display is all due to a quest for immortality that would never be. Had that Chinese chemist not been looking for a way for his people to live forever, our 4th of July celebrations might look a lot different.
The next time you head off to a 4th of July fireworks display, you should give thanks to the Chinese chemist who risked his life to create something to change civilization forever. He was gravely injured in the process, but he did manage to discover something that would change the world forever. He paved the way for modern fireworks to become what they are. He also created gunpowder, which has changed the way the people and countries protect themselves. The sacrifice that this chemist made changed our world forever.