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Fireworks at Tower Bridge

Happy New Year! The history of fireworks


Despite always at least one spoilsport bemoaning fireworks as money literally going up in smoke, most people love them.

It seems that the fascination with these noisy, fiery explosions began in ancient China. A rudimentary form of firecracker - bamboo stems exploding in fire - dates to the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 202 AD), before the invention of the modern firework which occurred at some point during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Of course, there would be no fireworks without the invention of gunpowder which happened during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907).

It’s commonly believed that gunpowder was accidentally invented by alchemists seeking, somewhat ironically, immortality. However, at some point, they discovered saltpetre (potassium nitrate) which occurs naturally in bat droppings. When it was mixed with charcoal and sulphur an explosions occurred. The gunpowder genie was out of the proverbial bottle.

There is still some debate as to whether or not gunpowder was first used by the Chinese military to power up missiles or amuse throngs of bystanders. What we do know is that fireworks became hugely popular across China and were employed to add drama to festivals and other celebrations. Their popularity began to spread further afield too. By the 1200s, fireworks were also being enjoyed in Persia and they arrived in Europe in 1295, allegedly via Venice by Marco Polo.

While some doubt has been cast on whether it was Marco Polo who was responsible for bringing fireworks into Europe, there is little doubt that the Italians did as much for the firework as they did cheese, tomato and pepperoni on flatbread.

Fireworks became fashionable at the start of the Italian Renaissance (1340 - 1550) and pioneering ‘fire masters’ (individuals in charge of firework experiments and subsequent displays) were respected members of society. Pyrotechnic schools opened to teach younger generations how to master this exciting new craft.

Fireworks arrived in the UK in the 1730s where they became an instant hit. Colonists took them to the USA where their popularity rivalled that of gunpowder. But despite increasingly elaborate shows timed to accentuate music performances or theatrical spectaculars, fireworks only came in one white, yellowish hue, which means the addition of colour is a relatively new phenomenon.

We can thank the Italians for this too. The former fire masters, now called ‘pyrotechnicians’, invented a new type of firework around 1830. By adding strontium to make red, barium to make green, copper to make blue, and sodium to make yellow, the firework was given a brand-new colourful lease of life. Evolving alongside was the technology to enable the launch of multiple aerial shells into the night sky where they would explode in bursts of colour and sound.

These days, certain events are guaranteed a firework accompaniment, such as the Fourth of July, Bonfire Night and Bastille Day. But it’s New Year’s Eve that’s the hands-down winner when we think of the ultimate day in the calendar for firework displays.

The biggest New Year's Eve firework displays in the world

Let’s check out five of the best places in the world to enjoy New Year’s Eve fireworks, including one that holds the Guinness Books of Records for the biggest display anywhere in the world!

Sydney, Australia

It gets over a million spectators every year and features over 58,000 individual fireworks running over two shows, one at 9 pm for the kids and another at midnight for the grown-ups. Each year there is a theme and in 2023 it's ‘One Night: Many Ways to Celebrate’ which has been curated by Sydney-based artists.

If that’s not enough to whet the appetite, how about a world first for 2023? A four-hour visual light show using AI-generated images projected onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge pylons.

New York City, USA

The USA spends over $368 million on fireworks every year, more than any country in the world, so it’d be remiss not to include them on the list. And arguably the best show in town is the annual extravaganza in New York.

Here you can party the night away in one of the many bars and clubs before the famous ball-drop which begins its decent 60 seconds before midnight. Then, at 12, the fireworks erupt from the roof of One Times Square accompanied by a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne.

Taipei, Taiwan

A multi-media sensation that features one of the tallest buildings in the world and arguably the best display on this page. Laser beams and music accompany the almost ludicrous show of pyrotechnics that ignite the stunning cityscape.

At ground level, there are a host of street parties and bars refreshing the revellers and keeping the fun going until the wee hours. This one should be a mandatory addition to any pyrotechnics bucket list.

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

This is one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties in the world with over two million revellers packed onto the world-famous Copacabana Beach. The Réveillon party, as it’s known to locals, starts at 7pm and goes on until dawn the next day.

Of course, the highlight of the evening is the massive fireworks display at midnight, where the whole length of the beach becomes one giant light show. And apart from the cost of a few drinks with friends, the entire event is free!

Dubai, UAE

The 2014 NYE event in Dubai holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s biggest fireworks display. Over half a million fireworks were set off from Burj Khalifa to engulf the night sky in a blaze of colour and light.

It’s not just New Year’s Eve that gets treated with a lavish helping of pyrotechnics either. In 2023, the fireworks festival runs from 15th December to 14th January in four locations across the city, enough to tucker out even the most die-hard firework fan.