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Fireworks For The 4th: The Surprising Bamboo Connection

With Independence Day (July 4th here in the United States) right around the corner, preparation is in high gear.  And while you might prepare by wearing incredibly moisture-wicking bamboo t shirts or by barbecuing with bamboo, did you know that bamboo and fireworks have a history together?  When you look at the different concoctions you can buy now, it is almost hard to believe where it all started.

Fireworks were invented by the Chinese over 2000 years ago.  However, their fireworks were a tad different from the ones we use today.  The Chinese figured out that if you put green bamboo on an open fire, it caused the air pockets trapped inside the structure of the bamboo stalk to explode with a bang.  They then realized if they put charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter (common kitchen ingredients found then) into the bamboo, it made an even bigger bang.   This was the beginning of the fireworks we know and love today.

At first, it was used for scaring both people and wild animals.  The Chinese military would often win battles using fireworks by scaring off their enemies!  Gunpowder (potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal) was then discovered.  Instead of using green bamboo, people realized that gunpowder exploded with a brighter light and a bigger sound than bamboo.  Now, fireworks are produced in a variety of sizes from hand held all the way up to rocket sized fireworks that need a launch tube.  The experts who make fireworks now are called pyrotechnicians, and they mix gunpowder with different chemicals (that create the different colors).  For example, sodium makes the color yellow, copper creates the color blue, barium makes green, and aluminum makes the color white.  If you add a little charcoal to the mixture, the firework has a fiery tale as it goes into the air.  The bigger displays you often see in your local town, village, and/or city are often controlled by computers.

By the 1200s, the Chinese had created their own fireworks industry and were constantly improving the technology.  Marco Polo brought fireworks to Italy with him from his expedition to China in 1292.  New kinds of fireworks displays and new technologies for creating them happened during the Renaissance. Fireworks grew in popularity and came to the United States for the first Fourth of July celebration in 1777.  It is amazing how far we have come with fireworks.  What started as a little bamboo being thrown into the fire for entertainment has now turned into a multimillion dollar industry!

Want to learn more about fireworks?  Check out these resources:

    The Art of the Explosion has a ton of information.  It also has over an hour of multimedia following the conception, installation, and performance of a major fireworks event. There also is an interactive fireworks design game.
    A point and click game from Phantom Fireworks
    A skylines game lets you experience virtual fireworks in various American cities.
    Learn about the relationship of size and velocity of fireworks at The Physics of Fireworks
    Nova has a great science of fireworks site
    Chemistry of the Week goes into detail about the colors.

For those who will experience a scorching hot holiday (temperature-wise that is), consider investing in comfortable and thermo-regulating Bamboo Clothing or Mens Lounge Pants.


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