By GLYNIS VALENTI
Times Leader Staff Writer
Think Fourth of July, and the brain streams visions of flags and fireworks. Here's some background on fireworks to add a little sparkle to your Independence Day.
You may already know that the Chinese "discovered" fireworks, but it started with an accident hundreds of years before gun powder. During the Han dynasty, around 200 BCE, someone threw green bamboo onto a fire. In fresh bamboo, the sap and air are still within the shoots, and the heat created pressure, a small explosion and "pop." People were afraid of the noise at first, then realized they could use it to frighten evil spirits. Scaring them off became a Lunar New Year ritual as people sought prosperity and protection for the coming year. "Pao chuk," or "bursting bamboo," was used for the next 1,000 years.
Along about 600 to 900 AD, Chinese alchemists were experimenting with sulfurous compounds. Stumbling upon a poisonous and dangerous combination of sulfur, potassium nitrate, honey and arsenic disulfide, the mixture accidentally ignited and set fire to the chemists and the lab. After that, many of the alchemists avoided the "huo yao" ("fire drugs") line of experiments, but others were intrigued and thought it would be the perfect addition to "bursting bamboo." More experiments led to the creation of gun powder, and by the 13th century, the entertaining fireworks used in rituals and celebrations were used in warfare.
When Marco Polo returned from his travels in 1292, he introduced the Italians to firecrackers. Mesmerized, and at the very beginnings of the Renaissance, the Italians elevated the simple noises and flashes to the colorful, artistic fireworks that were precursors to today's displays. The royals and wealthy commissioned sculptors, carpenters, painters and other craftspeople to construct elaborate displays for dinners and celebrations. Eventually, fireworks became entertainment for the masses and spread through Europe and into the new United States where, in 1777, on the one year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the skies were lit with patriotic bursts of color and light to give those fighting the war courage and support.
The Italians are credited with developing color combinations, also. Experiments by chemists and "fire masters" in the mid-1800's resulted in a rainbow of colors rather than the orange and white flashes of black powders and metal powders. Additions of metallic salts and chlorinated powders enabled pyrotechnicians to create more beautiful displays than ever seen before: lithium and strontium for red, barium for green, copper for blue, sodium (as in common salt) for yellow, calcium for orange. Mixing the powders as in mixing paint will produce purple and other varying degrees of colors. White is made by mixing gunpowder with magnesium or aluminum-the combination burns white hot.
Bobbie Presutti Lucas, owner of Ohio Fireworks in Bellaire, says her father, Vito, used to trade "powder secrets" with a company in China that now manufactures their fireworks. Government rules and regulations have made it too difficult for her company to make them at the local facility, though the equipment is still intact. Family-owned Ohio Fireworks is actually the oldest fireworks company in the world, notes Lucas, going back more than 300 years. Her grandfather brought the company with him when he emigrated from Italy in 1942.
In all, Ohio Fireworks is supplying 42 commercial, or Class B, displays this year including those in Barnesville, Martins Ferry, Elm Grove and Oglebay's July 3rd display, Wheeling's riverfront display on the Fourth with the symphony, Jamboree in the Hills and the Italian Festival. The company also sells Class C, or consumer grade, products. Lucas adds that more people are interested in colors and designs than loud noise nowadays, better for pets and animals.
What might you see at some of the area events? Probably a "peony," a big ball of colored lights; a "willow," an effect that looks like a giant willow tree with tendrils hanging in the air for 10 seconds or more; a "dahlia" shaped liked a starfish; a "brocade" with several bright, lacy tendrils and glitter; a "flitter," a star with an effect that includes flashing bright lights in the trail; a "palm tree," a shell that creates a stem as it rises and bursts into a willow or brocade effect at the top.
If you're staying at home and using legal fireworks like sparklers, smokes, snaps and small novelty fireworks, keep in mind that sparklers burn at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and have been linked to over 50 percent of fireworks injuries in children under five years old.
For centuries fireworks have entertained and fascinated humans with their dangerous beauty. Enjoying them safely with family and friends is a happy tradition that is part of the bigger celebration.