Fireworks are as American as the National Anthem, baseball and apple pie, right? Think about the lyrics “rocket’s red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.” Think about our traditional ear-blasting, eye-feasting annual Independence Day celebrations. Think again.
Fireworks actually were invented in China, thousands of years ago. The first noted incarnation occurred a few hundred years B.C. when someone left bamboo stalks to dry over coals so long, they expanded and exploded with a ferocious bang. Oops. Alarming perhaps, but no worry: the frightening noise scared off evil, so it was good.
Fast-forward a thousand years or so when, legend has it, a Chinese chemist had the happy accident of mixing saltpeter (potassium nitrate) with sulfur and charcoal, inadvertently creating gunpowder. Or maybe it was a legendary Chinese cook who accidentally spilled saltpeter into the cooking fire and was rewarded for his or her sloppiness with a colorful flame. Either way, a legendary person invented gunpowder in China about two millennia ago.
All it took from there was a mashup of the bamboo and gunpowder “technologies” to create the first fireworks around 1,000 A.D.: Li Tan, a Chinese monk, stuffed bamboo with a saltpeter-based gunpowder and launched it into a fire. Baboom! A modest explosion and impressive bang, along with a bright spray of sparkling white lights into the evening’s sky.
A simple chemical reaction
So what exactly happened? The charcoal caught the flame that created the heat that started the chemical reactions. The saltpeter created the force that blasted out from the bamboo, making the crackling and popping sounds. And the sulfur sprayed the fireworks out from the bamboo, creating the showering visual display.
At first, the Ancient Chinese people used these exploding firecrackers as part of New Year’s festivities to keep sinister spirits away. Over the next several centuries, people in China incorporated fireworks into other events, like weddings and military celebrations. Not surprisingly, pyrotechnics, the art of making or displaying fireworks, grew into a bona fide profession in China.
From China to the new world
In the 13th century, fireworks arrived in Europe where, by the 15th century, they had become part of routine religious festivals and entertainment. Settlers brought fireworks with them to the New World in the 1600s, but we owe their place in history to John Adams.
The day before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, saying the event should be celebrated with “with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” A year later, the first Independence Day fireworks blasted off on July 4, 1777.
The IP surrounding fireworks
Hard to believe, but thousands of years after the Chinese developed fireworks, they’re still made of the same essential elements: saltpeter/potassium nitrate, sulfur (Hence the smell!) and charcoal.
The most visible addition to the formula came during the Italian Renaissance, when Italian pyrotechnicians incorporated various metals to add color to fireworks displays: different metals release different colors (wavelengths of light) when heated, creating the brilliant, awe-inspiring shows we see today.
If fireworks are still made with the same ingredients all these centuries after they were invented, there probably isn’t a lot of new IP related to fireworks, right? Wrong. A quick query of the term “fireworks” in IP.com’s InnovationQ patent search software reveals the most relevant results are for innovations that make it safer, easier and more practical to launch, ship and enjoy fireworks. Here are the five most relevant patents:
US20030070572 Fireworks holder with remote control firing:
“A fireworks holding device for holding fireworks in an upward direction for safely igniting the fireworks and for safely holding the fireworks so that they are fired in an upward direction.”
US7314005 Fireworks ignition system for 1.4 fireworks
“An ignition system for 1.4 g or consumer fireworks includes a base to which the fireworks are secured to prevent tipping thereof during shooting.”
US20180106580 Pyro-cube fireworks
“A plurality of fireworks units. Each of the fireworks units includes a fuse, a plurality of fireworks launching tubes, at least one male tube, and at least one female tube.” Compared to shooting off a single firework, shooting off a plurality of fireworks creates a more exciting display. According to this patent’s description, the other methods of igniting several fireworks at once are complicated and unsafe, and this innovation is apparently a safer, simpler alternative.
US7096790 Combined fireworks shipping container and display stand
“A fireworks stand for elevating fixed-position fireworks, especially cone type fountains, having a body with an inner cavity for storing the fireworks and an upper platform for supporting the fireworks during discharge.”
The description for this patent explains that cone-type fireworks need to be small enough for practical transport and display at the point of sale, and at the same time large enough to be both stable so they don’t tip during discharge and elevated high enough for optimal viewing. But creating a larger cone creates a packaging and shipping nightmare. So this innovation includes the ideal-sized cone along with customized packaging and shipping boxes.
US6116553 Fireworks display stand
“A fireworks display stand … for easy transport to display sites in compact form where it can be unfolded and assembled to place fireworks in an elevated position. The elevated position of the fireworks increases the viewing zone for spectators and allows the fireworks sparks to burn longer as they freefall to the ground.”
As the patents above illustrate, although fireworks have been around for millennia, the IP surrounding them keeps exploding. Which leads us to one last thought: Can you patent a fireworks display?
A final burning question: Can you patent a fireworks display?
Visual arts must be tangible, or fixed for “more than a transitory duration,” to qualify for copyright or patent protection. So no, you can’t obtain a patent on a fireworks show. But you can copyright a photo or video of the show.
And it’s important to note, the Walt Disney Company® pioneered the idea of registering a patent for fireworks that create specific patterns or designs in the sky. Think Mickey Mouse ears, for example. Or a smiley face. That would be 1997’s US Patent 5,627,338, Fireworks projectile having distinct shell configuration, which “in another embodiment of the invention, the fireworks projectile has a special geometric configuration that allows the projectile to follow a more predictable path after launch …” “… and follows a more predictable, repeatable and accurate path in flight.”
So maybe Walt Disney World’s slogan should be “The Happiest Place on Earth … and in the sky!”