By John Rindfleisch
The next two weekends many communities in the Clinton area will be celebrating Independence Day. This year’s celebrations will surely involve some sort of pyrotechnics display.
Fireworks have been amazing audiences for centuries, and this year’s displays are sure to be just as spectacular as years past. Here are some facts about the history and science of fireworks.
Did you know the Chinese used firecrackers to scare off mountain men? 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. And, thus, the firecracker was born.
By some accounts, fireworks were also thought to scare away evil spirits. The invention of fireworks led to the invention of pyrotechnic weaponry—not the other way around. Sometime between 600 and 900 C.E., Chinese alchemists accidentally mixed saltpeter (or 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. This “fire drug” (or huoyao) became an integral part of Chinese cultural celebrations. Stuffing bamboo tubes with gunpowder created a sort of sparkler.
It wasn’t long before military engineers used the explosive chemical concoction to their advantage. The first recorded use of gunpowder weaponry in China dates to 1046 and references a crude gunpowder catapult.
The Chinese also took traditional bamboo sparklers and attached them to arrows to rain down on their enemies. On a darker note, there are also accounts of fireworks being strapped to rats for use in medieval warfare.
A firework requires three key components, an oxidizer, a fuel, and a chemical mixture to produce the color. The oxidizer breaks the chemical bonds in the fuel, releasing all the energy that’s stored in those bonds.
To ignite this chemical reaction, all you need is a bit of fire, in the form of a fuse or a direct flame. In the case of early fireworks, saltpeter was the oxidizing ingredient that drove the reaction.
Firework color concoctions are comprised of different metal elements. When an element burns, its electrons get excited, and it releases energy in the form of light. Different chemicals burn at different wavelengths of light.
Strontium and lithium compounds produce deep reds; copper produces blues; titanium and magnesium burn silver or white; calcium creates an orange color; sodium produces yellow pyrotechnics; and finally, barium burns

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