Things That Go BANG!

CakeAndrea here, Today is a special festive day here in America. The fourth of July—our Independence Day—is a high point of the summer season. Traditionally celebrated with outdoor barbeques replete with hot dogs, hamburgers and raspberry-blueberry-whipped cream flag cakes—hip, hip hooray for the red, white and blue! And along with all-American food, fireworks is an integral part of the festivities.

So, in the spirit of “things that go bang,” I thought I would give a few highlights on the history of gunpowder, which is the catalyst of filling the skies with bursts of bright color.


Boxer_woodcutGunpowder was invented in China sometime around the ninth century. Ironically enough, the alchemists of the time were looking to create a potion for eternal youth. Instead they ended up with something they called the “fire drug.” Gunpowder consists of three basic elements—saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. The proportions were tweaked over the centuries to create more explosive power, but until the advent of our modern synthetic propellants, the basic formula remained unchanged.

Over the years, Chinese military leaders came to realize that the invention could be used as a formidable weapon. By the 1200s, gunpowder “bombs” filled with rocks or bits of metal were being thrown or dropped on an enemy. The Chinese also proved quite inventive in naming their new arsenal. Some of my favorites include “Bandit-Burning, Vision-Confusing Magic Fire-Ball” and “Bone-Burning and Bruising Fire Oil Magic Bomb”. Next came fire lances, which could launch arrows or spears. I’m particularly fond of “Nine-Arrow Heart-Piercing Magic-Poison Thunderous Fire Erupter.” The name alone must have been enough to rout an opposing army! The first gun on record is a small cannon, which dates from 1288.

It’s not exactly certain how gunpowder came to the West, but the first reference to it in Europe appeared in 1267, when Roger Bacon, the famous medieval thinker, made mention of it in a letter to the Pope. By 1300 there is written evidence of a formula.

Fireworks at Hyde ParkIn 1346, Edward III of England used cannons to help his army of knights and archers defeat the much larger force of the French King. The Battle of Crecy is considered to mark the end of chivalry, as armor proved no match for the new weaponry. The use of cannons quickly spread throughout Europe.

Throughout the next few centuries, the methods for grinding gunpowder were refined, in order to add more force and stability. At first, powder was dampened to a paste, then formed into balls, which lasted longer than dry powder and were easier to transport. However, the process of “corning,” or forcing the paste through different sized screens to create “grains” was invented, and it remains the standard to this day. (Gunpowder is corned according to the intended weapon.)

Waterloo

As the Napoleonic Wars engulfed Europe, the production of gunpowder became a critical matter. Saltpeter is a bacterial waste product and occurs naturally in soil. But war demands LOTS of saltpeter. The substance is also found in human and animal waste. (Those of you who are squeamish might want to skip over the next paragraph.) In France, government officials called “Petermen” had the right to dig up a farmer’s barnyard to collect nitrate-rich soil—a law that was bitterly resented.

The English, through the East India trading empire, imported large amounts of cheap bird dung from India for the task. Even so, during the height of the wars, the government considered passing a law that would have required innkeepers to collect the urine of their patrons in barrels. (Brandy was said to produce the most desirable, er, raw material. (When the war war finally won by Britain and her allies, there were spectacular fireworks displays in London, which are part of my upcoming September book, Murder at the Serpentine Bridge.)

Main-imageTraditional black powder became obsolete in the late 1800s. Alfred Nobel—of Nobel Prize fame—developed the use of nitroglycerin, or dynamite, which was far more effective for blasting in mines and civil engineering. Modern chemistry also led to the discovery of better, more powerful “smokeless” powder to use in guns.

RoyalfireworksToday, gunpowder is still used in fireworks and for reenactments of traditional battles. So today, you are watching the Fourth of July fireworks celebrations here in America, breath deep and smell the acrid scent of burned powder. Listen to the thunderous bangs and watch the thick smoke cloud the air. Let it spark your imagination, and carry you back in history to the epic battles of Bunker Hill, Borodino and Waterloo. It’s a living, breathing reminder of man’s incredible—and sometimes frightening—creative spirit.

So what about you? Do you enjoy the spectacle of fireworks. If you're here in America are you going to watch the sky light up with a bang?

 

75 thoughts on “Things That Go BANG!”

  1. Thanks for your informative post, Andrea.
    We live in an area where many legal (and illegal fireworks) are set off from late in June through and beyond the fourth of July. The colored displays can be wonderful, but I have to admit to detesting painfully loud and startling noises.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for your informative post, Andrea.
    We live in an area where many legal (and illegal fireworks) are set off from late in June through and beyond the fourth of July. The colored displays can be wonderful, but I have to admit to detesting painfully loud and startling noises.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for your informative post, Andrea.
    We live in an area where many legal (and illegal fireworks) are set off from late in June through and beyond the fourth of July. The colored displays can be wonderful, but I have to admit to detesting painfully loud and startling noises.

    Reply
  4. Thanks for your informative post, Andrea.
    We live in an area where many legal (and illegal fireworks) are set off from late in June through and beyond the fourth of July. The colored displays can be wonderful, but I have to admit to detesting painfully loud and startling noises.

    Reply
  5. Thanks for your informative post, Andrea.
    We live in an area where many legal (and illegal fireworks) are set off from late in June through and beyond the fourth of July. The colored displays can be wonderful, but I have to admit to detesting painfully loud and startling noises.

    Reply
  6. I love the professionally done displays, especially the ones that are beautifully choreographed to music. But like Kareni, I don’t like the noise of fireworks.
    As a child they (fireworks) terrified me. I got over that, but I just can’t like noise for noise sake. When I hear a loud bang, I never assume it is anything good.
    But I love the 4th of July and associate it with family get-togethers and cook outs. Hope you had a great one!

    Reply
  7. I love the professionally done displays, especially the ones that are beautifully choreographed to music. But like Kareni, I don’t like the noise of fireworks.
    As a child they (fireworks) terrified me. I got over that, but I just can’t like noise for noise sake. When I hear a loud bang, I never assume it is anything good.
    But I love the 4th of July and associate it with family get-togethers and cook outs. Hope you had a great one!

    Reply
  8. I love the professionally done displays, especially the ones that are beautifully choreographed to music. But like Kareni, I don’t like the noise of fireworks.
    As a child they (fireworks) terrified me. I got over that, but I just can’t like noise for noise sake. When I hear a loud bang, I never assume it is anything good.
    But I love the 4th of July and associate it with family get-togethers and cook outs. Hope you had a great one!

    Reply
  9. I love the professionally done displays, especially the ones that are beautifully choreographed to music. But like Kareni, I don’t like the noise of fireworks.
    As a child they (fireworks) terrified me. I got over that, but I just can’t like noise for noise sake. When I hear a loud bang, I never assume it is anything good.
    But I love the 4th of July and associate it with family get-togethers and cook outs. Hope you had a great one!

    Reply
  10. I love the professionally done displays, especially the ones that are beautifully choreographed to music. But like Kareni, I don’t like the noise of fireworks.
    As a child they (fireworks) terrified me. I got over that, but I just can’t like noise for noise sake. When I hear a loud bang, I never assume it is anything good.
    But I love the 4th of July and associate it with family get-togethers and cook outs. Hope you had a great one!

    Reply
  11. I love the fireworks displays, though I haven’t seen one in years. Plenty of fireworks going off yesterday, but you know what? They weren’t as loud and annoying as the leaf blowers/lawn mowers/snow blowers that are around all year long.

    Reply
  12. I love the fireworks displays, though I haven’t seen one in years. Plenty of fireworks going off yesterday, but you know what? They weren’t as loud and annoying as the leaf blowers/lawn mowers/snow blowers that are around all year long.

    Reply
  13. I love the fireworks displays, though I haven’t seen one in years. Plenty of fireworks going off yesterday, but you know what? They weren’t as loud and annoying as the leaf blowers/lawn mowers/snow blowers that are around all year long.

    Reply
  14. I love the fireworks displays, though I haven’t seen one in years. Plenty of fireworks going off yesterday, but you know what? They weren’t as loud and annoying as the leaf blowers/lawn mowers/snow blowers that are around all year long.

    Reply
  15. I love the fireworks displays, though I haven’t seen one in years. Plenty of fireworks going off yesterday, but you know what? They weren’t as loud and annoying as the leaf blowers/lawn mowers/snow blowers that are around all year long.

    Reply
  16. I tatlly agree, Mary. I’m not usually one who likes loud noises, but a fabulous display of fireworks is wonderful, and the noise is fine when the sky is lit up in brilliant colors.

    Reply
  17. I tatlly agree, Mary. I’m not usually one who likes loud noises, but a fabulous display of fireworks is wonderful, and the noise is fine when the sky is lit up in brilliant colors.

    Reply
  18. I tatlly agree, Mary. I’m not usually one who likes loud noises, but a fabulous display of fireworks is wonderful, and the noise is fine when the sky is lit up in brilliant colors.

    Reply
  19. I tatlly agree, Mary. I’m not usually one who likes loud noises, but a fabulous display of fireworks is wonderful, and the noise is fine when the sky is lit up in brilliant colors.

    Reply
  20. I tatlly agree, Mary. I’m not usually one who likes loud noises, but a fabulous display of fireworks is wonderful, and the noise is fine when the sky is lit up in brilliant colors.

    Reply
  21. Oh, Lil, I totally agree with the lawn equipment! It drives me nuts, especially in summer! I feel like I’m living in a construction zone in the country. It’s really maddening, and I wish they could make ordinances about time of day. It’s getting so it goes on all week! Sigh.

    Reply
  22. Oh, Lil, I totally agree with the lawn equipment! It drives me nuts, especially in summer! I feel like I’m living in a construction zone in the country. It’s really maddening, and I wish they could make ordinances about time of day. It’s getting so it goes on all week! Sigh.

    Reply
  23. Oh, Lil, I totally agree with the lawn equipment! It drives me nuts, especially in summer! I feel like I’m living in a construction zone in the country. It’s really maddening, and I wish they could make ordinances about time of day. It’s getting so it goes on all week! Sigh.

    Reply
  24. Oh, Lil, I totally agree with the lawn equipment! It drives me nuts, especially in summer! I feel like I’m living in a construction zone in the country. It’s really maddening, and I wish they could make ordinances about time of day. It’s getting so it goes on all week! Sigh.

    Reply
  25. Oh, Lil, I totally agree with the lawn equipment! It drives me nuts, especially in summer! I feel like I’m living in a construction zone in the country. It’s really maddening, and I wish they could make ordinances about time of day. It’s getting so it goes on all week! Sigh.

    Reply
  26. Someone has to stand up for loud explosions with their fireworks…that would be me! I have always loved fireworks, but best of all, I love the accompanying “ka-booms!” No matter how dazzling the lights,fireworks aren’t the same if I can’t feel them in my chest!

    Reply
  27. Someone has to stand up for loud explosions with their fireworks…that would be me! I have always loved fireworks, but best of all, I love the accompanying “ka-booms!” No matter how dazzling the lights,fireworks aren’t the same if I can’t feel them in my chest!

    Reply
  28. Someone has to stand up for loud explosions with their fireworks…that would be me! I have always loved fireworks, but best of all, I love the accompanying “ka-booms!” No matter how dazzling the lights,fireworks aren’t the same if I can’t feel them in my chest!

    Reply
  29. Someone has to stand up for loud explosions with their fireworks…that would be me! I have always loved fireworks, but best of all, I love the accompanying “ka-booms!” No matter how dazzling the lights,fireworks aren’t the same if I can’t feel them in my chest!

    Reply
  30. Someone has to stand up for loud explosions with their fireworks…that would be me! I have always loved fireworks, but best of all, I love the accompanying “ka-booms!” No matter how dazzling the lights,fireworks aren’t the same if I can’t feel them in my chest!

    Reply
  31. I do enjoy the fireworks. In my town, the 4th of July fireworks are set off in a nearby park, so I watch the whole show from my front porch. We also had an unauthorized display last night from one of the neighbors, a bit scary, because they could have started a fire.

    Reply
  32. I do enjoy the fireworks. In my town, the 4th of July fireworks are set off in a nearby park, so I watch the whole show from my front porch. We also had an unauthorized display last night from one of the neighbors, a bit scary, because they could have started a fire.

    Reply
  33. I do enjoy the fireworks. In my town, the 4th of July fireworks are set off in a nearby park, so I watch the whole show from my front porch. We also had an unauthorized display last night from one of the neighbors, a bit scary, because they could have started a fire.

    Reply
  34. I do enjoy the fireworks. In my town, the 4th of July fireworks are set off in a nearby park, so I watch the whole show from my front porch. We also had an unauthorized display last night from one of the neighbors, a bit scary, because they could have started a fire.

    Reply
  35. I do enjoy the fireworks. In my town, the 4th of July fireworks are set off in a nearby park, so I watch the whole show from my front porch. We also had an unauthorized display last night from one of the neighbors, a bit scary, because they could have started a fire.

    Reply
  36. I have to say that I hate fireworks. They are beautiful, but pollute the environment. And our neighborhood became a battle zone (even though all private fireworks are banned in our city). My dog was totally freaked out and panting for hours. Do we really need this to celebrate??

    Reply
  37. I have to say that I hate fireworks. They are beautiful, but pollute the environment. And our neighborhood became a battle zone (even though all private fireworks are banned in our city). My dog was totally freaked out and panting for hours. Do we really need this to celebrate??

    Reply
  38. I have to say that I hate fireworks. They are beautiful, but pollute the environment. And our neighborhood became a battle zone (even though all private fireworks are banned in our city). My dog was totally freaked out and panting for hours. Do we really need this to celebrate??

    Reply
  39. I have to say that I hate fireworks. They are beautiful, but pollute the environment. And our neighborhood became a battle zone (even though all private fireworks are banned in our city). My dog was totally freaked out and panting for hours. Do we really need this to celebrate??

    Reply
  40. I have to say that I hate fireworks. They are beautiful, but pollute the environment. And our neighborhood became a battle zone (even though all private fireworks are banned in our city). My dog was totally freaked out and panting for hours. Do we really need this to celebrate??

    Reply
  41. I love fireworks shows. But, last night, or this morning at 3:15AM a neighbor started their own fireworks show right across the street from my home. My dog was frightened. If I were in possession of a gun ( preferably a rifle) I would have taken that rifle and beaten the idiot across the street within an inch of his life.
    Sonny is a rescue from an abusive background and that kind of event takes all his courage a step back. It is cruelty. I did not sleep either because Sonny was so very afraid.
    Thanks for the post. It is interesting and the picture of the flag cake made my mouth water. Thanks again.

    Reply
  42. I love fireworks shows. But, last night, or this morning at 3:15AM a neighbor started their own fireworks show right across the street from my home. My dog was frightened. If I were in possession of a gun ( preferably a rifle) I would have taken that rifle and beaten the idiot across the street within an inch of his life.
    Sonny is a rescue from an abusive background and that kind of event takes all his courage a step back. It is cruelty. I did not sleep either because Sonny was so very afraid.
    Thanks for the post. It is interesting and the picture of the flag cake made my mouth water. Thanks again.

    Reply
  43. I love fireworks shows. But, last night, or this morning at 3:15AM a neighbor started their own fireworks show right across the street from my home. My dog was frightened. If I were in possession of a gun ( preferably a rifle) I would have taken that rifle and beaten the idiot across the street within an inch of his life.
    Sonny is a rescue from an abusive background and that kind of event takes all his courage a step back. It is cruelty. I did not sleep either because Sonny was so very afraid.
    Thanks for the post. It is interesting and the picture of the flag cake made my mouth water. Thanks again.

    Reply
  44. I love fireworks shows. But, last night, or this morning at 3:15AM a neighbor started their own fireworks show right across the street from my home. My dog was frightened. If I were in possession of a gun ( preferably a rifle) I would have taken that rifle and beaten the idiot across the street within an inch of his life.
    Sonny is a rescue from an abusive background and that kind of event takes all his courage a step back. It is cruelty. I did not sleep either because Sonny was so very afraid.
    Thanks for the post. It is interesting and the picture of the flag cake made my mouth water. Thanks again.

    Reply
  45. I love fireworks shows. But, last night, or this morning at 3:15AM a neighbor started their own fireworks show right across the street from my home. My dog was frightened. If I were in possession of a gun ( preferably a rifle) I would have taken that rifle and beaten the idiot across the street within an inch of his life.
    Sonny is a rescue from an abusive background and that kind of event takes all his courage a step back. It is cruelty. I did not sleep either because Sonny was so very afraid.
    Thanks for the post. It is interesting and the picture of the flag cake made my mouth water. Thanks again.

    Reply
  46. I adore fireworks displays! I was lucky enough to be in the US during your bicentennial celebrations back in 1976 when there were fireworks at Disneyland (CA) every night in red, white and blue – fantastic! I also love the New Year fireworks displays every year around the world.
    A fun post and that cake looks fabulous, Andrea!

    Reply
  47. I adore fireworks displays! I was lucky enough to be in the US during your bicentennial celebrations back in 1976 when there were fireworks at Disneyland (CA) every night in red, white and blue – fantastic! I also love the New Year fireworks displays every year around the world.
    A fun post and that cake looks fabulous, Andrea!

    Reply
  48. I adore fireworks displays! I was lucky enough to be in the US during your bicentennial celebrations back in 1976 when there were fireworks at Disneyland (CA) every night in red, white and blue – fantastic! I also love the New Year fireworks displays every year around the world.
    A fun post and that cake looks fabulous, Andrea!

    Reply
  49. I adore fireworks displays! I was lucky enough to be in the US during your bicentennial celebrations back in 1976 when there were fireworks at Disneyland (CA) every night in red, white and blue – fantastic! I also love the New Year fireworks displays every year around the world.
    A fun post and that cake looks fabulous, Andrea!

    Reply
  50. I adore fireworks displays! I was lucky enough to be in the US during your bicentennial celebrations back in 1976 when there were fireworks at Disneyland (CA) every night in red, white and blue – fantastic! I also love the New Year fireworks displays every year around the world.
    A fun post and that cake looks fabulous, Andrea!

    Reply
  51. Oh, Annette I feel for you. I’ve been through this myself back when I was able to have dogs. The poor things were always petrified on the 4th. Hope your boy is doing better.

    Reply
  52. Oh, Annette I feel for you. I’ve been through this myself back when I was able to have dogs. The poor things were always petrified on the 4th. Hope your boy is doing better.

    Reply
  53. Oh, Annette I feel for you. I’ve been through this myself back when I was able to have dogs. The poor things were always petrified on the 4th. Hope your boy is doing better.

    Reply
  54. Oh, Annette I feel for you. I’ve been through this myself back when I was able to have dogs. The poor things were always petrified on the 4th. Hope your boy is doing better.

    Reply
  55. Oh, Annette I feel for you. I’ve been through this myself back when I was able to have dogs. The poor things were always petrified on the 4th. Hope your boy is doing better.

    Reply

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