A match flares, a fuse burns and we watch, waiting for fireworks to dazzle and jolt our senses, sparking an adrenaline rush. Now and then, that momentary fear gets real, and the devices we light to express our patriotism get out of hand, starting fires or causing injuries. More often, the sights and sounds traumatize our pets, our children and even bald eagles. None of that seems to bother Americans, who spend more money on pyrotechnics every year. Why are we still so fascinated? And how did minor explosives become synonymous with Independence Day? Here’s the breakdown.

A.D. 142

Wei Boyang, China’s “father of alchemy,” wrote the first known reference to what was probably gunpowder, a blend of three substances that would violently “fly and dance.” Hoping to ward off evil spirits or find the secret to eternal life, the alchemists instead invented the first explosive, recording a formula by the year 808. Gunpowder became so common that Chinese revelers started pouring it into their traditional firecrackers – bamboo stems tossed into fires to crackle and explode. By the 12th century, sophisticated fireworks and even rockets were entertaining and startling emperors of the Song Dynasty.

Lexi Nilson for the Deseret News

Queen Elizabeth I

The last Tudor monarch appointed a “Fire Master of England” to conduct royal pyrotechnic shows in the late 16th century – about 400 years after gunpowder reached Europe, via trade along the Silk Road or the Mongol invasion under Batu Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s many grandsons. The Mongols reportedly used “fire catapults” in battle, and Europe quickly started developing guns. But fireworks became popular as part of religious celebrations. Elizabeth made them a patriotic symbol. 

July 4, 1777

A year after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, that city celebrated with the ringing of bells, a performance by a Hessian band and cannonades from ships on the Delaware River, adorned with red, white and blue streamers. That night, as recorded by the Philadelphia Evening Post, the first 4th of July fireworks show illuminated the city commons, culminating with a volley of 13 rockets – one for each colony freed from British rule. 

$2.3 billion 

That’s what Americans spent on consumer fireworks in 2022, matching the Biden administration’s budget for modernizing the nation’s power grid. We burned through 461.7 million pounds of fireworks that year alone — more than the launch weight of 100 space shuttles — from whistling fountains to orchestrated spectacles in the sky. The United States imported more fireworks than any other country in 2021, about 10 times more than any other country. Most of them probably came from China, the world’s largest fireworks exporter by a factor of 11.

Lexi Nilson for the Deseret News

19,500 fires

Fireworks have played a role in notorious explosions from San Francisco to Beirut, but they also contribute to thousands of fires across the U.S. each year. According to the National Fire Protection Association, this results in $105 million in annual property damage, affecting homes, businesses and wildlands. In 2022, for example, nearly 100 families evacuated their homes in response to the “Deuel Creek” Fire in Centerville, Utah, just north of Salt Lake City. 

11,500 ER visits 

That’s one way to measure the casualties of fireworks in 2021, as reported by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Among them, 1,500 were caused by firecrackers and 1,100 by sparklers. Burns accounted for 32 percent of injuries. Hands and fingers were most likely to be hurt, followed by heads, faces and ears. Nine people died in fireworks accidents not related to their jobs. 

Copper Burns Blue

While gunpowder provides the “boom,” pyrotechnicians use metal salts to imbue fireworks with the desired colors and lighting effects. The Chinese first used the technique to use colored smoke and fire as military signals. Today, aluminum makes hand-held sparklers burn silver or white. Barium burns green; strontium burns red; copper burns blue; and zirconium burns ultra-bright, useful for “waterfalls.” 

“Combat Veteran Lives Here.”

This phrase on a yard sign is a plea for neighbors to temper their patriotic enthusiasm. The same explosive effects that thrill fireworks lovers can make Independence Day a torturous experience for those who developed post-traumatic stress disorder after fighting America’s wars. “It’s not that I don’t want people to have fun,” Iraq war veteran and former Marine Kevin Rhoades told NBC News. “But when you get woken up at two, three o’clock in the morning, it brings back those memories.” 

Lexi Nilson for the Deseret News

The Amygdala

Neuroscientists say we like fireworks because they frighten us, according to Popular Science. Flashes of light alert the amygdala, a collection of nerves in the brain that is activated by fear. Booms and cracks confirm our perception of a looming threat, like thunder or an explosion. The unpredictable rhythms of fireworks keep us on our toes, but we also know the threat is contained, so we can skip to the good part, when our brain releases dopamine — a hormone that stimulates pleasure — to soothe our fear. 

“In an age when highly-polished and sophisticated computer generated images are the norm, a live firework display feels like ‘border country.’ It’s a rare mix of controlled, careful choreography with that exciting sense that anything might happen. For, while almost all large displays are fired electrically, once that electrical pulse is turned into fire, the device is unstoppable. It’s a hypnotic cocktail of science and spectacle, raw power and beauty, colour and noise.” — Roy Lowry, chemist and associate professor, University of Plymouth

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.