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You Are the Fireworks of America

Boom. "Ahhhhh." Crack. "Ohhhhh." Boom-Boom-Boom. "Oooooo."

Every July 4th, just after dusk, you hear the same chorus in every city, town and hamlet across these United States. Fireworks burst across the sky as ‘the rockets red glare’ illuminates family faces. We sit on bleachers, huddle on blankets or in the back of pick-up-trucks as we watch patriotic pyrotechnic displays. These blazing exhibitions have been part of Fourth of July since the first celebration in 1777. That first commemoration was not the first time fire works were launched in American skies. Legend has it that in 1608, Captain John Smith set off a fireworks display in Jamestown.

The history of fireworks is ancient and spans many countries and civilizations. Most historians believe that fireworks were invented in China, however, some contend they originated in the Middle East or India. Either way, we do know that the first firecracker in China was created unintentionally when a stick of bamboo was tossed into a fire. As the hollow air pocket of the bamboo overheated a loud pop was created. The Chinese believed these natural fire crackers would ward off evil spirits. Around 800 BC a Chinese alchemist mixed sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate together, trying to create a recipe for eternal life. Instead, he created a recipe for the first gun powder. They began to pack this crude powder into bamboo and later into paper tubes and toss those into the fire. If you attended an ancient Chinese display it would not be like the shows today. Fireworks were not launched into the air and there were no added colors, just a few noisy explosions as the firecrackers where thrown on the fire.

By around 900 AD the Chinese realized they could make projectiles with the powder. They fastened firecrackers to arrows that they fired at enemies. Over the next 200 years, fireworks were fashioned into rockets that could be fired at your enemy without the help of an arrow.

Marco Polo brought fireworks to Europe and Arabia from Asia in 1295, gunpowder recipes came too. The West used the Technology to develop some more powerful weapons like cannons and muskets.

Fireworks continued to be used during celebrations to delight crowds. Henry VII is credited with the first royal fireworks display for his wedding day in 1486. Not to be out done, Czar Peter the Great of Russia put on a five hour firework show when his son was born. By the 1600s, the science of fireworks would still be similar to what is was in ancient China, but it was a lot more exhilarating! Now aerial fireworks were used (still plain orange -- no color yet.) The shows were run by “fire-masters.” They had assistants called “green-men,” named for the leaves they wore to protect themselves from sparks.

Early American settlers brought their passion for fireworks with them to the New World. Many people credit John Adams with inspiring the idea of celebrating America's independence with fireworks. He wrote to his wife Abigail,

"The day will be most memorable in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade … bonfires and illuminations [fireworks] … from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”

Adams was right.

America’s first Fourth of July fireworks celebration in 1777, still had only one color: orange. The elaborate sparkles of red white and blue and fancy shapes would not be invented for another 60 years. Pyrotechnic schools had taught eager students how to create elaborate explosions. In Italy, fireworks were particularly popular. They incorporated specks of metals and other components to intensify the brightness and to make innovative shapes.

The fantastic fireworks displays we watch today come to us by way of China, India, Arabia, England, Russia, Italy - really influences from all over the world. What you see in the sky on the Fourth of July is a veritable melting pot of creativity and innovation. A true representation of the noblest ideals our founding fathers set forth on July 4, 1776.

E pluribus unum - Out of many one.

Our founders hoped that this country would be a place of freedom for anyone seeking refuge from tyranny. They knew that what ever cultures and religions we brought with us, we could unite in the pursuit of liberty. So, this Fourth of July as you sit watching fireworks with your family and friends, surrounded by other groups of families and friends, just remember, each of us are like a colorful sparkle coming together to make a beautiful expression of freedom.

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