A boom in fireworks

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THE practical side of me says fireworks are a waste of money. The child part of me remembers my first sparklers and the excitement of watching them twinkle and hiss as the sparks worked their way down the stick. In California, many may still remember the haunting call, ``Let the fire fall!'' that rang from the floor of Yosemite Valley to the top of Glacier Point. Then all eyes turned skyward to watch the literal fireworks display as rangers shoved lighted coals over the edge in a shower of fiery glow.

What would the Statue of Liberty celebration last year have been without the fireworks? Or the Olympic Games? Or any Fourth of July? Or what would an outdoor presentation of the ``1812 Overture'' be without the cannons and the rockets? We may no longer set off firecrackers personally, but even a public display is not strictly a spectator sport. Listen to the ohs and ahs as the brilliant showers of light spread in all directions from a single burst!

Fireworks know no national or geographic boundary. In Germany visitors as well as townspeople witness the ``burning'' of the castle at Heidelberg each year. City lights are extinguished and from the Philosophers Way across the Neckar River, viewers see a small red light at one corner of the castle spread until the whole castle is in ``flames.'' Then as the glow dies down, the historic blowing up of the bridge across the river is simulated in radiant bursts of fireworks.

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When a prehistoric firemaker in Asia first threw some saltpeter on his charcoal embers, he certainly never foresaw the sky pageantry this would make possible. Although the secret was long known in Asia, it was not until the 7th century that traders brought it westward to Arabia, and later on to Europe.

Because of their relationship to incendiary devices and other weapons, fireworks were under military control in nearly all countries until the 18th century. That did not preclude elaborate displays to celebrate religious observances, coronations, royal weddings and births, as well as military victories.

The Italians were among the first to develop pyrotechnics, and they still hold a prominent place in the field. But it was not long before fireworks spread to France and then to England. In 1613 along the banks of the Thames, St. George vanquished a fiery dragon at the marriage of Elizabeth, daughter of James I of England. And in 1749, they touched the arts when Handel was commissioned to compose his ``Fireworks Music.'' This was a part of the London celebration of the treaty of peace signed at Aix-le-Chapelle, which was also being marked on the Continent.

But fireworks did not remain just for the elite. When amusement parks adopted them, they vied with one another in naming their displays, and visitors could choose between the ``Eruption of Mt. Etna'' and the ``Forge of Vulcan.'' Then a great advance was made near the beginning of the 18th century when a French chemist discovered how to add color to the displays with the use of potassium chlorates. Since then modern chemistry has greatly improved on this, and today almost every hue is possible.

The chemistry is forgotten, however, as we celebrate the birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco with dazzling pyrotechnics. Or visit Bastille Day in Paris. Or farther north, join the Scandinavians in marking Midsummer. Or in another hemisphere, attend a fiesta with the sierranos in a remote village in the highlands of Peru.

Pinwheels, Roman candles, fountains, firecrackers, sparklers. They light up our hearts as well as the heavens.

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