In our last post on the firework, we promised to talk about it’s key ingredient: gunpowder, which defines as “an explosive mixture, as of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal, used in shells and cartridges, in fireworks, for blasting, etc.” Coming into use between 1375 and 1425, in Middle English, this word is a compounding of “gun” and “powder.”

Of all pursuits, gunpowder was accidentally developed in the quest for immortality according to Kallie Szczepanski’s article Invention of Gunpowder over at Around 850, in an attempt to develop an elixir of life, a Chinese alchemist mixed 75 parts saltpeter with 15 parts charcoal and 10 parts sulfur. While this combination didn’t seem to noticeably prolong life, it did explode when exposed to flame.

Gunpowder is a key ingredient in fireworks, but according to Szczepanski, much like duck tape and WD-40, its first uses were by the military. The devices of war included rocket-propelled arrows, known as “flying fire” or “fei huo,” primitive grenades, poisonous gas shells, flame throwers, and land mines. The first illustration of a cannon was made in a Chinese painting in 1127, over a century before European artillery development.

It can be argued that gunpowder has had both good and bad uses throughout history. Either way, it can be dangerous and, with Independence Day coming this weekend, we hope that you will be safe with it. As we said in our last post, fireworks are certainly fun to set off, but the professionals put on the best shows which you can enjoy with the least amount of risk. Until next time, we hope that you will get out to enjoy nature, learn something new, and be safe.


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