Jon de Vos: Things that go 911 in the dark
July 3, 2008
I’m sure I hardly need to remind you of the astounding thing that happened 2,000 years ago.
Well, no, actually I meant the invention of gunpowder. Legend says some Chinese cook looked over at his neighbor’s mailbox and said to himself, “I could so blow that up if only I had some . . . some . . . well, if I had some, I’d probably call it gunpowder.” He took a mortar and pestle, some sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter, and 3 a.m. that next morning, Chinatel recorded its first 911 call.
Sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter are the ingredients, of course, of gunpowder.
Saltpeter is potassium nitrate, or as the Romans called it Sal Petrae, the salt of rock because it forms on rocks as a crusty mineral covering. Oddly enough, it took about 600 years after the invention of gunpowder for the first person to figure out how to shoot someone. Early pistols were simple brass hand-cannons, packed with gunpowder and nails with a nose hanky stuffed in the end to keep the charge from rolling out. A candle was held under the barrel until it blew up. It was most helpful if the intended shootee would politely stand there, perhaps with a puzzled look until the explosion, an event that was just as likely to blow off the arm of the assailant as it was to “nail” the victim. It wasn’t an exact science.
But shooting people, as recently affirmed by the US Supreme Court, is only one of the many benefits of gunpowder. Today we celebrate Independence Day with another of its marvelous properties: its ability to blow up the night sky with a rocket’s red glare. Of course, they had to add some strontium salts to the gunpowder to get that bright, red color. Mix in some aluminum or magnesium to get a white-hot burst, then add some copper salts to make gunpowder burn blue. Fireworks are an exact science today, one that literally started with a “Big Bang” theory. That’s all you got in early fireworks displays, escalating amounts of powder resulting in successively larger explosions, followed by everybody going home, hopefully to recover much of their hearing by the next Fourth of July. Gradually things got more sophisticated as oxides and oxygen-bearing compounds made gunpowder burn longer, more controllably, and much brighter. Modern fireworks originated in the early 1800s in Italy, where skilled craftsmen created many of the incredible colors and effects we enjoy today.
The Chinese claim one of theirs, a monk named Li Tian, invented fireworks about 1,000 years ago. A temple was built in the Hunan Province to worship him and he is celebrated every April 18th to this day. Exploding things tend to scare hell out of everyone so it should come as little surprise that firecrackers are believed to ward off bad luck and evil spirits and accompany many Chinese celebrations. The Chinese welcome in a trouble-free new year with extravagant fireworks displays.
Unfortunately, things don’t always work out the way we plan. A Google search of “fireworks tragedy” bounces back over 760,000 results with an incredible array of horror stories. A Dutch disaster in May of 2000, killed scores, injured hundreds, and destroyed 1,500 homes. In December 2001, a fire in a fireworks market in Lima, Peru, killed almost 300 people. Here a bang, there a bang, about 759,998 more times.
On a final note, support and applaud your local fireworks display, but remember, in Grand County, no fireworks are allowed that leave the ground. If you hear some damfool shooting off bottle rockets or other aerials, call the appropriate law enforcement agency with as best an address you can provide and turn a garden hose on the loved ones and pets. Don’t let that next Google search yield 760,001.