The celebration of American Independence Day has never been small, subdued, or quiet. From sea to shining sea, this Fourth of July will be illuminated with displays of fireworks in major cities, small towns, and backyards.
The beginning of pyrotechnics was around 2000 years ago, when the Chinese developed gunpowder by mixing sulphur, charcoal, and saltpeter. Even in its early form, "huo yao" (fire chemical) was used to make loud noises for celebrations. A monk named Li Tian is credited with the invention of firecrackers about 1000 years ago, made by stuffing huo yao into a bamboo tube. The use of gunpowder in weapons came later.
Gunpowder was brought to the western world by either Marco Polo or the Crusaders, or perhaps both. Most Europeans concentrated on the use of gunpowder in weapons, while the Italians developed pyrotechnic shows. Even today, many of the American pyrotechnic companies are run by families of Italian ancestry, such as Fireworks by Grucci and Zambelli Fireworks Internationale.
The Founding Fathers finished the final draft of the Declaration of Independence on July 2nd, 1776. On July 3rd, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail about the momentous occasion.
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. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.
July 4, 1776 was the day the Continental Congress finalized the wording of the Declaration of Independence. The official signing didn't take place until later, but July 4th has ever since been the birthday of America. Celebrations of independence took place throughout the summer of 1776, as well as they could considering there was a war going on. The legacy of the revolutionary celebrations is to celebrate with artillery and cannonfire in addition to bonfires and illuminations. Firecrackers and rockets were a natural extension. The first anniversary of the date was celebrated with the pomp and circumstance we would recognize today. Even in 1777, fireworks were used.
The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal. Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more. Amen, and amen (Virginia Gazette, 18 July 1777).
The War of 1812 brought more fireworks traditions to Independence Day celebrations. Francis Scott Key wrote a poem entitled "Defence of Fort McHenry" while watching the battle rage in 1814. It was later set to the tune of a drinking song, retitled "The Star-Spangled Banner," and became the United States' national anthem. The lines "the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air" reinforce the use of fireworks in patriotic displays. Another composition, "The 1812 Overture," has been co-opted to use in public fireworks displays, although the tune was written by Tchaikovsky about Napoleon's unsuccessful invasion of Russia. The sequence of cannon fire in the song lends itself to fireworks accompaniment much too usefully for us to quibble about its origins.
Today, fireworks are a unifying factor in the many ways America celebrates the holiday. You can have a parade, a picnic, a ballgame, a car race, or an eating contest, but it wouldn't be the same holiday without fireworks.
The Macy's display in New York City bills itself as the Largest Fireworks Display in America. Bristol, Rhode Island, has the longest continuous string of Independence day celebrations in the nation. This year will be number 222! Pop Goes the Fourth! is a Boston tradition featuring music of the Boston Pops Orchestra, and will be broadcast live on CBS-TV. A Capitol Fourth will be broadcast on PBS from Washington, DC. All the major events will include a massive fireworks display. Whether you attend a local fireworks display, watch one on TV, shoot some off in your own backyard, or enjoy virtual fireworks on the net, have a happy Fourth of July!