It's hard to imagine there's a person in America who doesn't have at least a few childhood memories associated with fireworks. Thunderously loud, dazzlingly bright, and of course, that grand finale that never seems to end—fireworks are a nearly universal symbol of celebration across the world. They explode when wars are won, during holidays, and even when Disneyland closes down for the night. Millions of people line up to see them, and millions of dollars are spent buying them: The fireworks industry is experiencing an unprecedented golden age in terms of sales and consumption.
Those consumers, however, should keep in mind that fireworks make celebrations better only when they're handled safely—nothing kills a party faster than a trip to the emergency room for injuries involving exploding projectiles. Powerful and potentially very dangerous, fireworks are nothing to trifle with. Statistics show that thousands of Americans, many of whom are children, are injured each year by preventable accidents with fireworks. When they are done right, however, today's best fireworks shows are truly marvelous displays of science, imagination, pageantry, and, of course, history—a very long history, at that. While fireworks in America are most closely associated with Independence Day, they trace their roots back to well before July 4, 1776. The story of fireworks starts thousands of years ago and involves dramatic changes in military conquest, spirituality, and good old-fashioned fun.
From a handful of bottle rockets whizzing up and popping over the neighbor's yard to highly coordinated televised events that light up entire major cities, summer is fireworks season. Here's a look at how it all started, how it evolved, the numbers behind the industry, and the realities of how high the stakes are when you decide to run your own pyrotechnics show. Keep reading for a peek into the 2,000-year journey of the greatest party novelty in the history of the world.
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The original fireworks were actually just sticks of bamboo, according to the Smithsonian Science Education Center. More than 2,000 years ago, around 200 B.C., people in China threw bamboo into fires, which would make the hollow rods explode when air trapped in pockets inside would burst after being heated.
The planet got a whole lot noisier somewhere between 600 and 900 A.D., according to the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA). During that period, alchemists in China developed what would become black powder by mixing charcoal with potassium nitrate and sulfur. The accidental discovery was the precursor to modern gunpowder and the ingredient that makes fireworks go boom.
Although powder-fueled fireworks were now officially pyrotechnic events, they would likely not have satisfied the modern reveler. The Chinese didn't add colors and they had not yet developed projectile explosives, so fireworks shows didn't light up the sky—or anything, really. They simply tossed the mixture encased in bamboo or paper into fires, where it ignited and made a series of pops, like modern firecracker strings.
The Chinese originally used black powder fireworks not for entertainment, but for use in spiritual ceremonies. This was similar to their ancient predecessors, who used their air-filled bamboo fireworks to ward off evil spirits centuries before.
It wasn't long before the concept of controlled explosions caught the eye of military tacticians, and by the year 1,200, the Chinese had invented rocket cannons. The devices used black powder to blast projectiles at approaching enemies. The deadly technology, however, also made it possible to blast fireworks into the sky—the aerial fireworks show was born.
As the new military tech spread west, rocket cannons became artillery cannons and handheld muskets. Europeans adopted not just the weapons, but fireworks, as well. They began expanding the technology into elaborate displays that were held to celebrate religious holidays, military victories, and royal festivities—for the first time in history, fireworks were the life of the party.
The Smithsonian printed excerpts of a letter Founding Father and future president John Adams wrote to his wife on July 2, 1776, two days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote that he believed a massive celebration was in order and that the festivities should include fireworks, although he called them "illuminations." Adams got his fireworks and they've been closely associated with the holiday ever since.
About 19.1 million pounds of consumer fireworks (small-scale explosives such as bottle rockets, firecrackers, and roman candles) were used in 2018, according to the APA—that's about 9,500 tons. That, however, is just a drop in the bucket compared to the 258.4 million pounds of consumer fireworks that were used during the same time period. In total, 277.5 million pounds of fireworks were set off in 2018 alone.
The 277.5 million pounds of fireworks consumed in 2018 is approaching double the 152.2 million pounds consumed in 2000. The use of display fireworks (professional-grade shows involving significantly more explosive material than consumer fireworks) dropped by more than half during that time from 50.6 million pounds to 19.1 million pounds. Consumers, however, went from using just 102 million pounds to 258.4 million pounds in the same span of time.
Every state in America plus Washington D.C. permits some or all consumer fireworks that are legal at the federal level, according to the APA—all except one. Massachusetts bans all consumer fireworks, while Illinois, Ohio, and Vermont allow only novelty items like sparklers.
According to the APA, "the U.S. fireworks industry has experienced unprecedented growth during the past decade and a half." In 1998, display and consumer fireworks revenue was $141 million and $284 million, respectively. By 2018, those numbers were $360 million and $945 million.
The modern aerial fireworks shell is made up of six components. Each shell includes a lead fuse, stars or effects, supplemental burst, bursting charge, internal time fuse, and lifting charge—otherwise known as black powder—which is still made from the same elements originally mixed by the Chinese.
Al Marjan Island in Ras Al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates kicked off the start of 2019 with what might just be the greatest fireworks display in human history. According to Guinness, the show broke two records, one for the longest straight-line fireworks display, which extended for eight miles, and another for the longest chain of fireworks, which consisted of 11,284 shells. Last year, the same team broke a record at the same place with a 2,397-pound shell that was deemed the largest in history—it spanned more than half a mile when it exploded.
The Macy's 4th of July Fireworks show is the biggest and most famous of its kind in the United States. In 2019, the pyrotechnics will launch from the Brooklyn Bridge and a series of barges. The 25-minute show will involve more than 70,000 shells, with variations including screaming dragons, silver twisters, howling wolves, and a 1,600-foot waterfall.
Fireworks are, for what should be obvious reasons, potentially very dangerous devices that explode, burn hot, and travel at high rates of speed. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), 12,900 people were injured badly enough in fireworks accidents to require emergency treatment in 2017 (the most recent year CPSC data is available).
Also in 2017, eight people died in fireworks-related incidents, which is consistent with the 7.25 average annual deaths that the CPSC recorded during the 15 years between 2002–2017. Of the eight who died the most recent year, seven were killed by direct impacts and one died in a house fire started by a firecracker. Five of the deaths dealt with reloadable aerial devices, one involved homemade fireworks, and one involved sparklers.
Sparklers are often viewed as benign and safe alternatives to fireworks that are okay for kids because they sparkle and glow, but don't explode. According to the National Safety Council, they burn incredibly hot—around 2,000 degrees—hot enough to melt metal. Many children suffer severe burns by dropping sparklers on their feet or after sparklers ignite their clothing with incredible speed.
More than half of all fireworks injuries are due to burns, and a huge plurality—nearly one in three—of all fireworks injuries are to the hands and fingers, according to the CPSC. The head, face, ears, and eyes are the next most likely injuries.
Men account for the overwhelming majority of fireworks-related injuries. According to the CPSC, injuries are split 70/30 between men and women.
People younger than 20 account for half of the fireworks injuries that are serious enough for emergency-room treatment, according to the CPSC. Young adults between the ages of 20 and 24 are the second-highest risk group.
The demographic at greatest risk are children between the ages of 10 and 14, according to the CPSC. Children under 15 accounted for 36%—more than one in three—of 2017 injuries.
Cherry bombs, M-80s, silver salutes, M-250s, and quarter sticks are classified as illegal explosives that are banned by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). They are, however, illegally manufactured and distributed en masse every Fourth of July. The ATF states: "The explosive compositions in these devices are typically extremely sensitive to heat, shock, electrostatic discharge and friction that may initiate, unexpectedly causing serious injury or death. The risks associated with these devices are further compounded because the persons manufacturing, transporting and using these devices often do not have the knowledge, skills, and experience required for such activities."
Fireworks provide the spark for an average of 18,500 fires a year, according to the National Fire Protection Association, including 16,900 outside fires, 1,300 structure fires, and 300 vehicle fires. Those fires kill an average of three people, cause 40 civilian injuries, and do $40 million worth of damage. More fires are reported on July 4 than any other day of the year.
At least nine states have made their laws more permissive since 2000, according to the APA, with many opting to legalize handheld and ground-based sparkling devices. Another eight states liberalized existing laws since 2011.
Fireworks are black powder explosives and therefore are, of course, dangerous. That said, it is certainly possible to transport, store, and use fireworks in a safe, responsible manner—actually, fireworks account for just 2.4% of all common outdoor summer activities for children between the ages of 5 and 18. In fact, well over half of all such injuries can be traced to just three activities, none of which involve explosives: swimming, bicycling, and playing in playgrounds.