The Truth About Bombs Bursting in Air: Fireworks Are Not as American as You Think
As the U.S. celebrates its 241st birthday this year, revelers are likely to enjoy a spectacular display of fireworks lighting up the night sky, but the history of those bombs bursting in air is a complicated one.
The first fireworks date back more than 2,000 years to the days of the Han Dynasty in China, where researchers believe bamboo stalks were burned until they would explode and crackle.
The primitive pyrotechnics took a leap forward between 600 and 900 A.D. with the introduction of gunpowder and other minerals to the bamboo shoots that created more elaborate explosions the Chinese believed would ward off evil spirits.
For that purpose, they were lit up predominantly at special events like New Year celebrations and weddings.
As time went on, the pyrotechnics became much more sophisticated and were encased in paper tubes instead of bamboo.
Eventually, the fireworks were attached to arrows, which led to the world's first rockets.
Fireworks reached the West as world exploration caught on, becoming a popular item to be traded or used during eras of cultural diffusion. Both the Roman and British empires were known to have used them as well.
Historians believe it was Captain John Smith of England who first brought fireworks to the “New World” that would eventually become America. He is said to have put on a fireworks display in the Jamestown colony in 1608.
A year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, America would have its first fireworks displays in Philadelphia and Boston amid the Revolutionary War.
Since then, the tradition has only grown, with fireworks shot off in both suburban neighborhoods and big cities like New York, Boston and Chicago.
The first displays were mainly just red and orange bursts, but that all changed in the 1830s when historians believe Italian immigrants smuggled colored fireworks into America as they came off ships at Ellis Island.
Today, most fireworks are imported from China, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that $296.2 million in pyrotechnics made its way over from the Asian nation in 2016.
While fireworks have become an annual tradition in America to celebrate independence, they have also been marred by numerous incidents where they've been used improperly.
Thousands of people are seriously injured each year in the country while handling the explosives. In 2016, four people in the U.S. were killed by fireworks and 11,000 were injured, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.
In 2015, New York Giants star Jason Pierre-Paul lost part of his hand to fireworks and spoke out in the PSA a year later, urging people to safely use the devices or not use them at all.
"I held on to the firework too long," he said.
The blast claimed his right index finger and left his hand severely damaged. He showed his scars in the public service announcement on behalf of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"On my way to the hospital, all I could think about was my son, and if I was going to make it," he says in the video.
Each year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission blows up mannequins on the National Mall ahead of Fourth of July to show how dangerous the explosives can be.
This year, the NYPD also got in on the action as they explained the dangers of simple fireworks by blowing up watermelons and urging citizens to leave the handling of such explosives to the pros.
"Everyone should leave the use of fireworks to the professionals,” NYPD spokesman Sgt. Brendan Ryan said in a press conference Friday.