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Jon DeVos: Don’t try this at home

Jon DeVos / The Friday Report
Fraser, CO Colorado

There are few things so American as fireworks on the Fourth of July, but it’s likely we won’t see any in Grand County this year. The forests are so dry it would be like trying to light a propane plant with kerosene lamps.

The Fourth of July is all-American, but we thank the Chinese for the fireworks. About 2,000 years ago, a Chinese teenager 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 call it gunpowder!” So he grabbed his dad’s mortar and pestle and mixed sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter. Early the next morning that kid was responsible for Peking’s first 9-1-1 call.

Saltpeter is potassium nitrate, or as the Romans called it Sal Petrae, the salt of rock, because it occurs on rocks as a crusty mineral covering. Add sulphur and charcoal and the mixture burns in a vivid explosive flash.



Oddly enough, gunpowder was around for 600 years before someone figured out how to shoot somebody. Early pistols were simple brass hand-cannons, packed with gunpowder and nails, then stuffed with a nose hanky to keep the charge from rolling out. The victim had to hold still while a candle was held under the barrel until the gunpowder exploded. This event was just as likely to blow off the gunman’s arm as it was to “nail” the victim. Early murder wasn’t an exact science.

Our right to shoot people has been many times affirmed by the Supreme Court, but it is only one of the many benefits of gunpowder. We normally celebrate Independence Day with another of its marvelous abilities: blowing up the night sky with a rocket’s red glare.



The Chinese claim 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 18 to this day. Fireworks were used by the Chinese to ward off illness, bad luck and evil spirits.

If the Chinese invented fireworks, Italians polished the art and science of exploding aerial displays. They added strontium salts to get that bright red rocket’s glare. Aluminum and magnesium make a white-hot burst and copper salts for a good old American blue.

Early firework displays were boring. Escalating amounts of gunpowder were ignited and successively larger explosions were followed by everybody going home to recover their hearing. Over time the art became more sophisticated. Metallic oxides and oxygen-bearing compounds made gunpowder burn longer, more controllably, and much brighter, leading to the incredible colors and effects we celebrate with today.

Or not, depending on a fire ban.

Things don’t always work out the way we plan. A Google search of “fireworks tragedy” bounces back almost four million 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 four million more times.

We’ll miss this year’s fireworks displays but a complete ban makes sense. If you see some fool lighting fireworks or even smoking outdoors, call the authorities and turn a garden hose on your loved ones and pets.

There’s an old Chinese proverb that never went like this: It is wiser to observe the spectacle than to be the spectacle.


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