July 4 is synonymous with fireworks. In fact, it’s estimated that Americans today spend an estimated $1 billion on fireworks each Fourth of July.
Some might be surprised to learn that the tradition of setting off fireworks, or miniature explosions, stretches back to the earliest days of American independence. And that fireworks themselves have a history that’s more than 2,000 years old.
In China around 200 BC, it was discovered that bamboo tossed into a fire would explode with a bang—the result of air pockets overheating inside the stalk. With the discovery of gunpower in China around 800 AD came the first man-made fireworks: hollowed-out bamboo filled with the explosive material. At this time, however, fireworks were still only enjoyed at ground-level.
Predictably, it wasn’t long before gunpowder became an essential part of warfare, used by the Chinese by 1200 to blast projectiles at enemies. But this “rocket” technology also led to the first aerial fireworks.
As diplomats and missionaries traveled between Europe and China in the following centuries, fireworks moved west, becoming an integral part of important European celebrations. It’s little surprise then that the American colonies adopted this tradition from their mother country and that fireworks were part of early July 4 celebrations.