4th on 53rd Getting a bang out of the 4th on 53rd Parade

By JoAnn Fastoff Blackman

…and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there…”

Fireworks are as much a part of America as is the Declaration of Independence. As a matter of fact, fireworks were popular even before the country won its independence. The first commemorative Independence Day fireworks were set off on July 4, 1777 at the first public reading of the Declaration held in Philadelphia’s Independence Square to the ringing of bells and band music. According to American University historian James R. Heintze, “Philadelphia put together an elaborate day of festivities that included a 13 cannon display, a parade, a fancy dinner, toasts, music, musket salutes and of course fireworks.”

A little history. As early as 200 B.C. the Chinese were writing on green bamboo stalks and heating it on coals to dry. Sometimes if left too long over the heat, the wood expanded and even burst…with a bang of course. According to Scientific American, Chinese scholars noticed that the noises effectively scared off abnormally large mountain men. Centuries later Chinese alchemists accidentally mixed potassium nitrate with sulfur and charcoal, inadvertently stumbling upon the crude chemical recipe for gunpowder. Supposedly, they had been searching for an elixir for immortality. Stuffing this “fire pill” in the bamboo tubes with gunpowder created a sort of sparkler. Fireworks were born.

One of the Four Great Inventions of ancient China is gunpowder. The compass, paper making and printing make up the others. China is the largest manufacturer and exporter of fireworks in the world. The art and science of firework making has developed into an independent profession. The most prestigious fireworks competition is the Montreal Fireworks Festival, an annual competition held in Canada. Another magnificent competition is the annual Le Festival d’Art Pyrotechnique held in France in the summer. The World Pyro Olympics is an annual competition among the top fireworks companies in the world and held in Manila, Philippines. The event is one of the largest and most intense international fireworks competitions. (I guess we all have a little pyro inside us, screaming to get out.)

Although most humans enjoy the sound and sights of fireworks, both can be a problem for animals, both domestic and wild, which are frightened by the noise. When your dog or cat becomes frightened, they may try to escape to a place where the thunderous sounds of firecrackers are less intense. On the Fourth of July, so many pets are frightened and try to escape that animal shelters around the U.S. report a dramatic increase in lost pets during the holiday. Just sayin.

Did you know that there are fireworks clubs? These groups provide safety instruction and organize meetings and private “shoots” at remote premises where members shoot commercial fireworks as well as fire pieces of their own manufacture. These particular clubs legally secure permission to fire items usually banned by state or local ordinances. Competition among members and between clubs, demonstrating everything from single shells to elaborate displays choreographed to music, are held.

Given the ingredients in fireworks, it’s probably not too surprising that trying to reuse unexploded items is both unsafe and unwise. Before tossing these in the trash, you might try soaking them in water first. The cardboard is probably too dirty to be of any value to recyclers, though it’s always a good idea to check with the City of Chicago. I hear they’re bursting with advice.

Millions enjoy the sights and sounds of fireworks. For those 30 minutes that we ooh and aah while enjoying beautiful music and watching the sky explode with colors you thought only Crayola could have invented, fireworks allow everyone from two to ninety-two to be still, if just for 30 minutes.

Here’s a myth you might enjoy regarding the invention of fireworks: “In Ancient China the first fireworks were accidentally made by a Chinese cook. The cook inadvertently mixed three ingredients together: charcoal, sulfur and potassium nitrate.”

Was this the original big bang theory or what?