One thousand years before the first Fourth of July, the first fireworks exploded. It didn’t rain twinkling stars or light up the night sky — but to the complete surprise and misfortune of one Chinese chemist, it did go “bang.”
This “bang” was the product of an ancient quest for immortality, according to Gunpowder, Explosives and the State: A History (Routledge, 2016) . In early-ninth-century China, alchemy was all the rage. The goal of alchemy was to produce a substance that would prolong life, or even cheat death. Alchemy never did uncover a death-defying concoction. But it did produce an explosion that would change the way we celebrate holidays worldwide.
An explosion requires just three components. First, there must be a fuel — a chemical consisting of long, chain like molecules with very strong bonds. Then, there must be a chemical called an oxidizer. The oxidizer breaks those bonds, releasing tremendous energy in the process. Finally, you need heat to get the explosive reaction going.