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Washington DC Fourth of July Fireworks

It would be hard to imagine ending Independence Day celebrations without the lighting of the night sky with color fireworks. It seems every town in our nation puts on its own production every year at this time. But the use of fireworks in celebration is no American phenomenon. Chinese used fireworks in

celebrations before Westerners had developed Christianity, let alone dreamed of the country whose birthday we commemorate July 4. Ancient Chinese used the same technology for developing fireworks displays that they used when inventing the rocket. For centuries they celebrated religious ceremonies lighting up the night sky.

Fireworks took a long route to the United States both in time and travel. In the 14th Century, Italians and French traders brought the noise and joy home from China. The English first watched a fireworks show at the marriage of King Henry VII in 1486. Another Englishman, the legendary Capt. John Smith of Pocahontas fame, brought them to America in the early 17th Century. (Explosions weren't all joy for the captain, however. Smith returned to England after getting burned in a gunpowder accident.)

Like moviegoers, photographers, television watchers and computer geeks, the original fireworks watchers had to content themselves with black and white shows. It wasn't until the 19th Century that someone figured out how to set them off in color. Relatively little is written about their development because a few family-run companies have dominated the fireworks market who felt loathe to share their secret recipes.

But in the 1800s, developers realized that by regulating the electromagnetic radiation, they could create color displays in the air. So instead of the white light of original fireworks created by heat burning throughout the spectrum of vision, showmen created color displays by narrowing the heat to a short segment of spectrum. The longest rays, for instance, appear red, the shortest violet. Makers further varied tones by heating sodium at different temperatures. When you see fireworks change color, you're seeing bursts with more than one layer of chemical. By arranging the bursts in a circle around the charger, show producers light up the sky in spheres.

Vendors sold $22.9 million worth of fireworks in the U. S in 1992, the last year for which figures are available. And they're still coming from China: of the $2 million worth we imported, $1.6 million came from the country that brought us fortune cookies.

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