The History of Sparklers
The popular firework can be both unassuming and dangerous
The Fourth of July remains one of the most popular holidays in the United States. Decadent barbeques, icy slices of watermelon and fireworks are all on the menu for a wide swath of the country. The humble sparkler has long been a part of the traditions, but what are its origins?
There is no definitive documentation, but a seventh-century A.D. architect named Callinicos of Heliopolis (a city in ancient Egypt that translates to City of the Sun) is widely accepted as being the father of the sparkler. He developed something called a cheirosiphon, which was essentially a rudimentary flame thrower used to wreak havoc during times of war. These devices expelled “Greek Fire,” which was a flaming sticky substance, most likely pine resin, that adhered to whatever it landed on and generated fiery terror.
Fortunately for the many celebrations and events around the world, a much gentler and safer version (when properly used and supervised) has evolved into the sparklers that are used today. They are most commonly comprised of sticks with thin, non-combustible metal wires dipped in a pyrotechnic slurry that allow for a slow and colorful burn when ignited.
The current version of the sparkler came from the German wunderkerzen from the 1850s, which was wire coated in iron and gunpowder. Like many common items of today, this has since been engineered over the years into a less volatile and user-friendly version. In this country, they have become popular accessories for holidays and events like July 4th, New Years and weddings among others over the past century.
There are only six factories in the world that make sparklers. Five are in China and the other is in the United States (Youngstown, Ohio). Chinese businessman Ding Yan Zhong controls the vast majority of fireworks production and distribution in the world, including sparklers. Julie Heckman, the executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, lamented, “Everything going through Shanghai goes through Mr. Ding… We have no choice. You want to get your products, that’s what you do… The industry is at the mercy of that, and nobody wants to rock the boat.”
Despite their lack of a big boom, sparklers can still be dangerous. A Boston Globe report in 2016 found that sparklers caused injuries more frequently than any other type of firework. Meanwhile, a 2009 report from the National Council on Fireworks safety showed 16% of injuries caused by legal fireworks in the United States were caused by sprinklers. All told, they do contribute to hundreds of injuries annually, as their small but hot fire are not to be trifled with.
There will likely be more sparklers than ever lit during this year’s Fourth of July. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which will keep many more people home and away from larger-scaled celebrations, fireworks are being snapped up at a booming pace this year. Retailers have reported skyrocketing sales as people seek venues of entertainment with their ability to congregate and travel being much more limited than in the past. Heckman explained, “People are using fireworks every night across the country right now and I believe that’s totally related to the pandemic. People are bored and have been in lockdown mode for over three months… and they’re looking for some affordable entertainment at home.”
Sparklers are the least flashy of all fireworks but have become a vital staple of celebrations, especially on the 4th of July. They are not only the most accessible but also the most dangerous. Next time you light one up, keep in mind their evolution from a carnage-spewing flame thrower to the sizzling rods of light and color of today — and make sure to only use as directed.