By Peter Buffa
4:07 PM EDT, July 1, 2011
You know what Monday is. And, yes, it is a big day.
Not only is it Colleen Johns' birthday, like you didn't know that, but it's America's birthday — Uncle Sam, the US-of-A, this place, 235 years old this year.
Can you believe it? It hardly looks a day over 200. We've done the 411 on the history of Independence Day before — Philadelphia, summer of '76, scary hot, muggy, miserable, even without the silly clothes and the powder wigs.
On July 2, the 55 men in Independence Hall vote for breaking away from the Brits, and on July 4, everyone puts their John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence, including John Hancock.
In a letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams writes about the great day: "It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."
We're on it, John. The guns and the bonfires, not so much, but the illuminations are still going strong.
Be honest. What is the first thing you think of when you hear "the Fourth of July?" Anyone?
Of course, fireworks — all that boom-shakka-lakka-lakka, boom-kaboom stuff. Yes, I know, some of you don't like fireworks, especially if you're a pooch, but get over it.
They've been part of every Fourth of July rager since Franklin and company staggered out of Independence Hall and said, "Booyah, we're done!" And they always will be.
If you're looking for someone to thank for fireworks, or not, all roads lead to China. The first references to fireworks go pop during the Han dynasty, about 200 B.C. Most who-started-it stories are fuzzy and hard to sort out. This one isn't.
The Chinese invented fireworks, perfected them and were making people go ooh, aah and wow hundreds of years before anyone else. One reference from 1264 A.D. says that a rocket-propelled "ground rat" firework scared the Empress Dowager Gong Sheng during a major rager being held in her honor. Oh, sure, blame it on the rat.
The Chinese first got into the boom biz to scare away evil spirits, especially one called Nian, who spent all his time eating crops and people. I think the eating people part is a much bigger issue, and if a rat with a sparkler strapped to his back does the trick, I say go with it, and I don't give a spring roll what the Empress Dowager thinks.
Later, about 600-800 A.D., the Chinese invented something that really goes boom — gunpowder — which ironically, was only a distant cousin to what was being used in fireworks. Gunpowder was actually discovered by Chinese alchemists who were hot on the trail of an "elixir of life" that would let you live forever and never be sick, ever. How hard could that be?
The alchemists kept careful records of every magical mystical mix, and when one of them came up with "...mix sulfur, saltpeter, honey and arsenic, heat over open flame," there was one less alchemist. But the big boom from the new black powder was not lost on the fireworks makers, who said, "Got any more of that? and started to make more sophisticated fireworks, especially rockets, that quickly evolved into nasty weapons of war.
In 1292, Marco Polo brought fireworks to Europe, and aside from the fact that you knew I would get the Italians into this sooner or later, here is my question. Apparently, everything that ever made it to Europe from anywhere else in the world was dragged back there by Marco Polo. How big was Marco Polo's ship exactly? Was it a super tanker? I don't get it.
During the Renaissance, the Italians elevated fireworks to a true art form, mostly by inventing exploding canisters that could be timed to go off at certain points, in a rainbow of colors and an endless variety of patterns and badabing, the spectacularly spectacular full tilt boogie fireworks show was born. Everybody loved them, except for Marco Polo of course, who was way too busy hauling stuff back and forth.
By the early 1700s, the British were staging huge fireworks displays in city parks as holiday celebrations. Ironically, by 1777, and the first Fourth of July fireworks displays in the newly minted United States, the art of the boom-sizzle-flash had been perfected to much the same level you see now.
What has changed dramatically, though, is not the fireworks but the control technology. Instead of 60 people running around lighting fuses and running for their lives, one guy with an iPad and a margarita can run the whole show from a beach chair.
I think that's it. The Empress and the ground rat, Abigail Adams and fireworks. It's all related. A very happy birthday to Uncle Sam, I would lose the white satin pants, but it's totally up to you. You're looking great, and I guess it's true — 235 is the new 200. I gotta go.
PETER BUFFA is a former Costa Mesa mayor. His column runs Sundays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.