Pyrotechny Legend and Lore

Parking lot fireworks
Fireworks over an Albuquerque parking lot, photo by Kajmeister

I see fireworks
I see the pageant and pomp and parade
I hear the bells ringing out
I hear the cannons roar
I see Americans, all Americans free
Forever more–
–John Adams, Is Anybody There? from 1776

Bamboo shoots make the best firecrackers. At least, that’s what the Chinese thought, and they ought to know, since they are credited with inventing them. Most folks probably learned the abbreviated history that I did, where Marco Polo brought gunpowder and spaghetti back from China to the Europeans. Not exactly true, since Roger Bacon referenced the gunpowder formula when Polo would have been only about 13. But legends, including those in the U.S., are an important part of the formula. So is China, as one of the most noted artists of our century is a man who paints the sky with gunpowder.

Founder of Crackers

Li Tian, Founder of Crackers
Li Tian discovering what black powder does when ignited, from

The invention of firecrackers has multiple Chinese stories behind it. One says that folks in the Han Dynasty, (200 BC -200 AD), developed a custom of throwing bamboo stalks into the fire to ward off evil spirits. Since bamboo has hollow air pockets, it pops when it burns, ending with a bang.

Another story says a cook named Li Tian of Liuyang was experimenting with charcoal, sulfur, and a mixture called saltpeter. Saltpeter preserves meat, sulfur is a by-product of foods like eggs and cauliflower, and charcoal is used in fire, so they might have been handy to Chinese cooks. Mix all three together, and you get a black powder which, if touched with a spark, will ignite and eventually pop and create smoke, usually with colors. Stuff it inside a bamboo shoot, and you get a very loud bang indeed.

Li Tian is credited with inventing the firecracker, scaring away the spirits of evil dragons, and dispelling evil spirits who had caused flooding and drought in his home province of Hunan. As a result, Liuyang declared April 18th as Li Tian day and celebrates their “Founder of Crackers” near the temple built in his name every year. Liuyang is also known as the World Capital of Fireworks and considered a must-see for any visiting pyrotechnics fan touring Asia.

Whether Li Tian existed or is a very early example of travel advertising for Liuyang–like the Coca Cola version of Santa Claus that we now commonly use in our western Christmas images–it’s a surety that fireworks and gunpowder originated in China. The firecrackers may have come first, but Chinese military leaders were most interested in what their alchemists created, and it wasn’t long before they were shooting rockets at the Mongol invaders.

The resistance wasn’t entirely successful, and Kublai Khan eventually conquered the province and took the gunpowder. As the Mongols moved west across Russia and towards Europe, they brought their technology with them. There’s a fierce historical battle over exactly when black powder shows up in Turkey, Russia, India, and Europe, but the Arabs had it by 1280 as referenced in a text by Hasan al-Rammah, while English scholar Roger Bacon wrote of the formula in 1267.  Marco Polo was born in 1254, by the way, so his bringing gunpowder from China is as unlikely as his bringing pasta, another legend which may have been created in a 20th century spaghetti advertisement.

The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha 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 commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
–John Adams, writing to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776

Pomp and Parade

Fireworks have been used at ceremonies around the world, dating back to the 14th century.  Along with the military science of gunpowder, medieval alchemists developed an understanding of how to use different metals to burn different colors and in patterns. For example, strontium and lithium burn red, where sulfur and compounds of cooper and chlorine burn blue.

One of the big fireworks-themed holidays in the UK is Guy Fawkes Night, and I have to admit this one puzzles me a bit. Guy Fawkes was the fellow who plotted to blow up Parliament in 1605. So, naming a huge celebration after him would be like having a holiday in the U.S. named after John Hinckley or Squeaky Fromme. But, hey, fireworks!

Of course, in the U.S., we’ve concocted plenty of our own half-truths and legends in history. Americans celebrate July 4th as the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but it’s been widely reported that the Declaration wasn’t really signed on the fourth–not by the people who signed it. Many of the signers weren’t even in Philadelphia on the date in question.

Just to get the sequence right, the Continental Congress debating independence did, on June 11, 1776, order a small committee of five to write it. Our annual family ritual is to watch the movie 1776 which fudges history a bit, but it does get that part correct. Thomas Jefferson did write the first draft, which the committee presented to Congress on June 28th–Geez, I’ve worked on executive Powerpoint funding presentations that were allowed more time! Congress edited the heck out of the document, cutting something like 1/4 of it and taking out the reference to deep-sea fishing rights, so that it was ready for vote by July 1st. After wrangling and subcommittee votes, twelve of the colonies did vote in favor, with New York abstaining. The Declaration was adopted on July 2nd.

That was the date where John Adams wrote home to his wife Abigail that July 2nd would be celebrated throughout the future in this new country with “pomp and parade” and “illuminations” i.e. fireworks. Meanwhile, most of the actual members of Congress gathered together in August to complete the signing, though there’s no holiday on August 2nd.

During American fireworks displays we like to play music, traditionally a lot of John Philip Sousa, like Stars and Stripes Forever. We also play the 1812 Overture and, like the Marco Polo legend, many Americans (including me when I was younger) associate it with the War of 1812. Wrong! Tchaikovsky wrote the Overture to commemorate the Russians chasing Napoleon’s French army out of Moscow.  Apparently, millionaire Boston symphony patron David Mugar persuaded Arthur Fiedler to add the Overture to a Boston Pops concert in the mid 1970s because attendance was down. As they schemed about how to bring in the cannon sounds for the piece, fireworks seemed a natural add. Fireworks and music are now standard.

John: Abigail, in my last letter I told you that the king has collected twelve thousand German Mercenaries to send against us. I asked you to organize the ladies to make salt peter for gunpowder. Have you done as I asked?
Abigail:  No John, I have not.
John: Why have you not?
Abigail: Because you neglected to tell us how salt peter is made.
John: By treating sodium nitrate with potassium chloride of course!
Twiddle, Piddle, and Resolve, from 1776

Cai Guo-Qiang, Sky Ladder
Sky Ladder of Cai Guo-Qiang, photo by Lin Yi and Wen-You Cai

The Virtuoso of Chinese Salt and Flowers

Saltpeter isn’t that common, although in one original Star Trek episode, Captain Kirk conveniently finds potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur lying around next to some bamboo shoots.  Kirk and the Chinese alchemists figured it out. In our time, a Chinese artist has used the chemical properties of saltpeter–also called Chinese salt by the Europeans and Arabs–to create incredible sky sculptures and paintings.

His name is Cai Guo-Qiang.

You might have seen his firework footprints during the Beijing Olympics. He also creates 500 meter ladders in the sky, rainbow smoke explosions, and giant canvases of exploding color that contain detailed images and random blooms. Netflix has a documentary Sky Ladder that details his failures and success in creating this giant climbing ephemeral work of flame.

For my art there is a common theme most of the time, it is using the things we can see, to search for the world we cannot see. Gunpowder as a material can be good at showing these things.
–Cai Guo-Qiang, quoted in Financial Times

This post was going to be all John Adams and the chemistry of fireworks until I came across a snippet about Cai’s work while channel flipping last night, and I was gobsmacked. Much of his work takes months to design, days to set up, and only a few minutes to endure, but the videos are stunning, like this one called the  Black Ceremony in Qatar, 2011.

For the paintings, Cai lays out stencils on a set of canvases, then covers them with different colored gunpowders. After laying down fuses and heavy covers, he ignites the powders and, in this type of his art, the temporary combustion leads to a permanent beauty–some random, some planned.

Cai Guo-Qiang, gunpowder art
Cai Guo-Qiang, Heaven Complex No. 1


Our Bay Area forecast for this July 4th evening is heavy fog, which means the planned fireworks shows we can sometimes see from the hills will probably not be visible. So, after 1776, I may have to dial up Netflix to watch Cai Guo-Qiang build his amazing sky ladder.

Thanks, Cai, David Mugar, Arthur Fiedler, John Adams, Marco Polo, Roger Bacon…

…and Li Tian.

Cai Guo-Qiang, gunpowder rainbow
Cai Guo-Qiang, gunpowder rainbow, from 2011 Black Ceremony


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