Listen to the Recess! Clip
It’s the Fourth of July, our national day of independence, and the holiday that’s most connected with fireworks — though we certainly aren’t limiting ourselves to just that day. We Americans will set off fireworks on almost any occasion, from birthdays to home runs. Here at the University of Florida, our annual football homecoming celebration, which is called “Gator Growl” and is billed as the largest pep rally in the country, ignites a fireworks display that would make most good-sized cities beam with pride.
Fireworks come to us from China, it’s thought, some two thousand years ago. The actual inventor is lost in the smoke wreathes of time, but it’s generally held that the discovery was an accident when, so the myth goes, a cook happened to mix together charcoal, salt peter, and sulfur and then by chance let this recipe find its way to an open flame. Chinese alchemists later perfected the mixture (which is the basis for today’s gunpowder) calling it “fire chemical,” and using it to scare away evil spirits as well as enemy troops. One of the early fireworks the Chinese developed was called “The Rat.” It was simply a paper tube filled with gunpowder, open at one end. When lit, it zig-zagged along the ground, scaring horses and soldiers alike.
Marco Polo brought Chinese firecrackers back to Europe with him in 1292 and like pasta, this innovation began proliferating in sizes, shapes, and designs — captivating the imaginations of not only kings and generals but average folks as well. By the time of Shakespeare, fireworks were well-known in England, where the displays were tended by people called “green men,” because they smeared themselves with soot and fresh leaves to protect themselves from being burned as they lit the squibs and rockets. Along with the ordinary firecracker (the idea for which probably came from that same Chinese cook who accidentally threw small pieces of green bamboo into the fire and heard how they exploded), the most popular firework at that time was the dragon. This large paper-covered effigy spewed fire from its mouth and eventually flew apart, releasing other fireworks into the air. Remember the first of the Lord of the Rings films, when two of the hobbits, Merry and Pippen, light one of Gandalf the Wizard’s dragons and manage, first, to terrorize the whole of the Shire with it, and then to leave everyone in a delighted, slightly dizzied and scorched state of awe. Fireworks may be a few thousand years old, but they show no signs of fading. Nor are we any less fascinated by the wondrous, sulfurous trails they leave in our night skies.