It is in the night skies when I first notice the bright stars during the summer. It was in the night skies that I first realized the peace, tranquility and silence. It is in the night skies that I first saw fireworks at the age of 10. It was in the night skies that I realized that the moon was a place. It was in the night skies that I realized where it all began.

As the Bible says, "Where the sprit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Corinthians 3:17). Freedom is a gift from God, hard to gain and easy to lose.

I am sure that many of us really appreciate the struggles of George Washington and our founding fathers that saw the night skies as a guiding star and incorporated its magnificence into our country's flag with an emblem of stars.

It has been told that George Washington said to let the 13 stars in a circle stand as a new constellation in the heavens. The stars were in a circle so that no one colony would be viewed as first before another.

It then is with great gratitude that we should be proud of being Americans, as the Fourth of July is a time of celebration and also of gratitude to all men and women of the military and past wars who fought for our freedom.

On July 4, 1776, American patriots signed the Declaration of Independence, which announced to the world that the 13 colonies no longer belonged to England.

Although the signing of the Declaration of Independence was not completed until August of that year, July 4 has been accepted as the official anniversary of the United States.

John Adams, our second president and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, thought that Americans should observe "A great anniversary festival with great flair of parades, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations forevermore!"

So the first official Independence Day celebration took place the following year on July 4, 1777, as Philadelphia participated in a huge birthday bash complete with fireworks that lit up the sky for all to see.

By the early 1800s, the tradition of parades, picnics and red, white and blue decorations were displayed, and in July, 1941, the government declared the Fourth a federal holiday and fireworks have been the mainstay symbol.

According to Newsweek, U.S. fireworks manufacturers today make only about $17 million worth of fireworks annually, compared to some $172 million that are imported from China.

The history of fireworks goes back thousands of years, during the Han Dynasty (200 B.C.) in China, long before gunpowder was invented. It is believed that the first firecrackers were likely chunks of green bamboo, which someone may have thrown onto a fire when dry fuel ran short. The rods sizzled and blackened and, after a while, unexpectedly exploded. Bamboo grows so fast that pockets of air and sap get trapped inside the plant's segments. When heated, the air inside the hollow reeds expands and eventually bursts through the side with a long bam.

The strange sound, which had never been heard before, frightened people and animals terribly. The Chinese figured that if it scared living creatures so much, it would probably scare away spirits, particularly an evil spirit called Nian, who they believed to eat crops and people. It later became customary for them to throw green bamboo onto a fire during the Lunar New Year in order to scare Nian and other spirits far away, thus ensuring happiness and prosperity to the people for the remainder of the year. Soon, the Chinese were using bursting bamboo for other special occasions, such as weddings, coronations and births. The bursting bamboo, or pao/chuk as the Chinese called it, continued to be used for the next thousand or so years.

Gunpowder then was added. Most historians believe that gunpowder was first discovered sometime during the Sul and Tang dynasties (600-900 AD) in China. It was most likely discovered accidentally by alchemists who were experimenting with sulfur mixtures in an attempt to create an elixir of life.

During the period of chemical discovery and experimentation, the alchemists kept records of certain poisonous and dangerous compositions that should never be mixed, including one particular mixture consisting of sulfur, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), honey and arsenic disulfide. The texts make reference to such a mixture igniting accidentally while being cooked over a fire, resulting in a large, bright, hot flame that burned the hands and faces of the alchemists tending to it and even burnt down the shack where they were cooking it. Despite the warning, some alchemists were intrigued by the mixture and continued experimenting with it to try to find ways to make it more powerful. Their crude mixtures weren't as powerful as modern gunpowder because they didn't contain as much potassium nitrate, but nevertheless, burned very hot and bright. It was named huo yao, or the "fire chemical." It was soon discovered that if the "fire chemical" was put inside of bamboo tubes and thrown in the fire to be ignited, the gasses produced by the burning powder would blast the tube apart with a much louder and more powerful bang than just green bamboo. The firecracker was born.

Meanwhile, the Italians had been fascinated with fireworks ever since the explorer Marco Polo brought back firecrackers from the Orient in 1292. During the Renaissance in Europe (1400-1500) they began to develop the fireworks into a true art form.

Since this was a period of artistic creativity and expression, many new fireworks were created for the first time. Military rockets could be modified by adding powered metals and charcoal in order to create bursts of gold and silver sparks in the sky.

The Italians were able to develop aerial shells - canisters of explosive composition - that were launched into the sky and exploded at the maximum altitude. The Chinese also developed shells that were spherical in shape. However, the most spectacular firework displays were still those made at ground level. Firework makers discovered how a special, slower-burning gunpowder mix could be put in an open-ended tube, which would give off sparks when lit. The dense showers of bright sparks resembled water spewing from a fountain, so the new pyrotechnic device was named accordingly. If rocket engines were attached to a wooden wheel framework, it would spin around rapidly and give off sparks in a circular pattern. Italian sculptors would carve giant, detailed models of castles or palaces, which would be adorned with fountains, wheels and torches. These "Temples," as they were called, were a beautiful and crowd-pleasing sight when ignited. Such displays were in high demand throughout Europe. The idea of controlled fire was fascinating to all, and kings saw no better way to show their wealth and power than by having fireworks at their religious festivals, weddings and ceremonies.

For nearly 1000 years, the only colors that could be produced by fireworks were the orange flash/sparks from black powder and white sparks from metal powders. But in southern Italy in the 1830s, the Italian scientific advancements in the field of chemistry enabled pyrotechnicians (the modern term for the old fire masters) to create reds, greens, blues and yellows by adding both a metallic salt (strontium - red, barium - green, copper - blue, sodium - yellow). When fine aluminum powder was mixed proportionally with an oxidizer, the resulting mixture - flash power - burned much hotter and faster than black powder, allowing for the manufacture of louder firecrackers and salutes in aerial fireworks into the night sky.

Until next time,


Joe D'Angelo

P.S. On June 24, 1826, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Roger Weightman, the mayor of Washington, D.C. Jefferson declined the mayor's invitation to attend the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The former president was ill and could not make the trip from his home in Virginia. In his letter, Jefferson elaborated on his hopes for the continued celebration of July Fourth. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, 50 years after he wrote this famous document.

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