"As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of the opportunity provided to serve self-interest when Al Gore created the internet; and we should also thank Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey for creating Facebook and Twitter out of the kindness of their big hearts and not the thinness of their small wallets."
-Ben Franklin, Autobiography (1742)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

John Adams and the first Independence Day

Yesterday marked the annual celebration of America's most patriotic holiday - Independence Day. For any unfamiliar readers, July 4th is when we celebrate several auspicious moments in American history, namely the signing of the Declaration in 1776 that cemented our decision to break away from England into our own nation, as well as the defeat of alien invaders in 1959 that was later retold in a small indie film starring Will Smith in the 1996 which was well-received but probably went under the radar of all but the most avid cinaphiles.

Most Americans celebrate the 4th of July through several distinct rituals - lounging in the sun near bodies of water, cooking over an open flame, drinking hand-crafted American brews (or bottles of Madeira for the historically inclined), and of course the most popular - admiring colorful explosions in the sky and/or setting things on fire while attempting to create said colorful explosions in one's backyard.

Fireworks are truly a remarkable sight - but where do they come from? When and why did the Founders introduce this awe-inspiring method of getting pumped about Liberty? Here are the facts:

Fireworks were invented in China in the 7th century as a fool-proof method for warding away evil spirits. During John Adams' undocumented visit to China on a return trip from France during the Revolutionary War, he stumbled upon the time-honored tradition and thought the pyrotechnics might be a feasible alternative to the dwindling arm supplies in the war effort back home. Adams purchased several hundred bushels of bottle rockets, black cats, roman candles, and high-velocity mortars and shipped them back to the colonies. On June 13, 1777 a journal entry accounting the purchase reads:

"I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to purchase and light this badass retinue of fire, in support and defense of these colonies. Yet through all the Gloom we will see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory when these bombs burst in the air. I can see that a rocket's red glare is more than worth all the Means. And that mortars will trump any weak poppers that the enemy will throw at us, even if we set Jefferson's house on fire, which I trust in God We shall not."
- John Adams, 1777

Less than a month later, as the country prepared to celebrate the 1st anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, still unsure of how the war would turn out, Adams' and the 82nd militia in New York prepared fireworks to launch against the British in a surprise attack. However, just as the militia finished setting up the first volley, an unwitting soldier lit his pipe and inadvertently set off about 1/3 of the entire cache. Colorful explosions ripped through the sky and could be seen for miles in every direction. According to Adams' journal, a spark from the initial explosion then lit the remaining 2/3 of the fireworks, sending them into the air all at once in a spectacular finale to the unplanned show. 

The colonists were so inspired by the display and the way it allowed them to forget about the war for an evening of celebration that fireworks became an instant tradition for any patriotic event. George Washington eventually cemented the practice as law after using fireworks at his inauguration. 

To this day you will rarely see an American celebration of patriotism without fireworks, thanks to a purely accidental show put on by the Founders themselves. So next time you throw a firecracker into a porta-potty, don't forget to give a shout out to old John Adams, the father of pyrotechnics in these United States.

Here's to another great year for USA!


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