07/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fireworks and the Fourth

For most Americans, the mention of the Fourth of July brings to mind visions of fireworks before thoughts of the Declaration of Independence. How did fireworks become so inextricably linked with this important national celebration of our nation's freedom?

The use of small explosives for celebrations is said to date to ancient China (200 B.C.E.).
The Chinese discovered the merits of something popping, scaring people, animals, and evil spirits, when they threw green bamboo into a fire while cooking. Bamboo grows quickly and air and sap are trapped inside the plant; when the air within the plant is heated, it expands, popping with a loud bang. They soon began to incorporate the use of exploding bamboo in any occasion where they wanted to scare away evil spirits. The Chinese eventually developed gunpowder, and a form of gunpowder was then used for this purpose.

In the United States, some think that John Adams' letter of July 2, 1776, where he predicts that the holiday of independence would one day be " the great anniversary festival...with bonfires and illuminations..." is a reference to the use of fireworks during this very early time in the nation's history. Adams actually was referring to the custom of using candles to light buildings and plazas -- quite dramatic in a day before streetlights.

Fireworks were not used in the first celebrations of Independence Day because their use required advance planning and the materials were costly -- people in the newly formed nation did not have cash to spare for such purposes. As the country grew a little older, cities began featuring fireworks celebrations, but rural areas relied on firing guns, setting off cannons, or "firing an anvil," a somewhat risky process that involved two anvils and a fuse to ignite gunpowder, which "launched" one of the anvils, creating a cannon-like bang when the top anvil landed again on the bottom anvil.

As might be anticipated, fires, deaths, and bodily injuries were part of many celebrations. As early as the 19th century, fire departments and volunteers were on heightened alert around the holiday. In 1866, Portland, Maine suffered massive destruction from a fire that resulted from fireworks. In 1873 the editor of Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine wrote an editorial suggesting that children donate to the needy the money they normally were given to spend on fireworks. However, most Americans, than and now, feel that it is an American right to celebrate Independence Day with fireworks.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that in 2007 about 9,800 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms for July 4-related injuries. More than half the injuries were burns and most of the injuries involved the hands, eyes, and legs; children 10 to 14 years old had the highest per capita injury rate among all age groups.

In the interests of safety, two relatively recent developments have occurred. The federal government bans the sale of the most dangerous types of fireworks, and a few states have tried to ban their sale totally, but neighboring states are very likely to set up stands just over the state border to facilitate sale to those who care deeply enough to transport the contraband across state lines.

Public displays have also been instituted as a safer alternative to backyard fireworks. While most members of the public are safe during commercial displays, many release high levels of pollutants, depending on the composition of the fireworks. In 2004 Disneyland in Anaheim began launching fireworks using compressed air rather than gunpowder, which reduced smoke and fumes from the big displays.

Though we live in a country that regulates safety in everything from food to children's sleepwear, we still celebrate the beginning of our existence as an independent nation by setting off explosives. Though the beauty of fireworks against the night sky is incomparable, maybe we ought to be satisfied with good friends, good food, and an annual renewal of resolve to do some form of volunteer work to "make the world a better place." We live in the greatest country in the world, and there are plenty of safe, nonpolluting ways to celebrate that. What do you think would be a fitting celebration of our freedoms?