The first firework in China was probably a piece of bamboo. Because bamboo grows in segments, cutting the stalk in the right places yields a short tube sealed at both ends. Throw it into a fire and the air inside the tube expands, causing the tube to burst loudly, much like popcorn.
By the ninth century, however, the Chinese and their neighbours had developed a new tool for making fireworks: a compound they called “Fire Medicine”, which westerners came to know as gunpowder.
These early recipes contained less nitrate than is optimal so, rather than producing explosions, they made bright, fast-burning fires. Early fireworks in China were therefore probably more like spark fountains than firecrackers. However, as the proportions of the various ingredients were adjusted over time, gunpowder became more explosive and was used to make firecrackers.
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Then, as now, a firecracker is a simple device. Simply seal some gunpowder in a tube, set it off and it makes a loud bang. Leave one end of the tube unsealed to make a rocket. Attach it to a long stick and it flies relatively straight. Leave the stick off to make a device that scoots around unpredictably. One early device of this type was called a “flying rat”; on one occasion, such a cracker reputedly nearly flew up an empress’s robe.
You might hear that the Chinese focused more on fashioning fireworks than weapons, which is supposedly why they fell behind the more warlike west – but don’t believe it: they used gunpowder for weaponry from the very beginning. Nearly every type of ancient Chinese firework had a military analogue. Rockets could be aimed at enemies; firecrackers could be enlarged and used as bombs; and large spark-spewing tubes became fire-lances, ancestors of the gun.
Answered by Tonio Andrade, author of The Gunpowder Age (Princeton University Press, 2016)
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This content first appeared in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine