31 Dec /14


The four key inventions of the Chinese were papermaking, printing, the compass and gunpowder.

When exactly gunpowder was discovered is a matter of debate – but it certainly goes back some 1,200 years. However, the first chemical formulas were recorded only in 1044. It was certainly something that revolutionised warfare.

So it is fitting that the first reference to fireworks in English is in a translation of Machiavelli’s work The Art of War. This major work was published in Italian in 1521. The English translation came out in 1562. The translator was Peter Whitehorne who had spent considerable time in Italy, also as a soldier fighting on the side of Emperor Charles V. He describes “how to make saltpetre, gunpowder and other diverse sorts of fireworks or wild fire”. Dedicating his translation to Queen Elizabeth, the work rode on a wave of war manuals written at the time, as England came to see itself as a military power. The third edition was published in 1588, the year that England saw off the invasion of the Spanish.

But fireworks were also used for other purposes than war. In China, fireworks were used to frighten off evil spirits. In England the first recorded use of fireworks as entertainment was in 1575, when Queen Elizabeth I made a tour of England. The most spectacular entertainment was in Kenilworth and is recorded by one of the most important poets at the time of Shakespeare – George Gascoigne. In Princely Pleasures he writes about “fireworks showed upon the water; the which were both strange and well executed”.

Fireworks became a fixed part of public celebrations, particularly for New Year’s Eve. The spectacles are global, starting with Sydney and continuing world-wide, with big highlights in Tokyo, London, New York and San Francisco.