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Happy Birthday to the United States of America!

In past years we have celebrated Independence Day with an historic picture gallery, possible national animals, and an essay concerning the lackluster national mascot, Uncle Sam. This year, let’s return to the basics: recreational explosives, or, as they are more commonly called “fireworks”. Blowing things up artistically in the sky has been the preferred method of celebrating this nation’s birthday since the 18th century.

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Fireworks were first made in China, but today they are almost entirely manufactured in, um, China. As such, Chinese symbols and names are a big part of fireworks. This is lucky for ferrebeekeeper since snakes, poultry, bees, wasps, flowers, and badass mammals like tigers, cats, and wolves are mainstay names for mass produced fireworks.

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I live in Brooklyn, and I can’t buy fireworks (much less light them off). Nevertheless the best part of fireworks is looking at the packages and fantasizing about the awesomeness which is just a spark away. Here is a gallery of firework packages which fit in Ferrebeekeeper’s topics array. Bees and birds are the best represented since not only do they fly but they are also beautiful and dazzling. I especially like the egg-laying hens which shoot exploding “eggs” out of their tail feathers. Unsurprisingly there are plenty of flowers, snakes, tigers, and hissing cats, but I was surprised to find pine trees, crowns, and octopus fireworks. Naturally outer space was featured, yet sadly there were no fireworks named for gods of the underworld (although I did find some “banshees”, which almost count).

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Wow! I’m sorry we can’t wait for dusk and light these all off, but local laws prohibit that (as does the nature of reality). Enjoy the colorful exploding anemones in the sky at your local show and have a lovely weekend of feasting and drinking with your family and friends (and, for my international readers, I guess just keep savoring the world cup…your own national fireworks celebrations should be just around the corner).  Fireworks remind everyone that life is brief and it isn’t safe, but it is beautiful and amazing!

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Huzzah!

Drawing of Wan Hu and his space vehicle

Ferrebeekeeper has looked at true space pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of theoretical astronautics, and Yuri Gagarin, the first person to actually visit space.  However there are apocryphal tales concerning earlier space-explorers and aerospace pioneers. One of the shortest and silliest legends concerns Wan Hu, a (most-likely-fictional) petty government official in Medieval China who was reputedly the first astronaut.  Wan Hu’s problematic story is set in 15th century China during the 19th year of the reign of the Chenghua Emperor (the 8th emperor of the Ming Dynasty who ruled from 1464 to 1487).

Wan Hu Launches Off (Illustration courtesy of US Civil Air Patrol)

Wan Hu was obsessed with the heavens and he decided to travel to outer space by means of Ming dynasty technology (or possibly he was trying to catch a cartoon roadrunner). He assembled a “spacecraft/flying machine” from 47 powerful fireworks rockets, two large kites, and an armchair.  The rockets were tiered into two stages to give the chair an added burst of power.  When he gave the word, numerous attendants darted forward with torches and simultaneously lit the fireworks.  Wan’s chair leapt into the sky and then exploded in a giant ball of flame.  When the smoke cleared Wan and his flying machine were entirely gone.  Even if he did not make it to space, he certainly succeeded in exiting this mortal plane!

Not only does the story contain implausible elements (!) but the first known version of Wan Hu’s heroic but doomed flight comes from an issue of Scientific American published in the October 2nd, 1909 issue of Scientific American (although the hero of that story was named “Wang Tu”).  Subsequent retellings of the story (first in English and then in Chinese) changed the name to Wan Hoo and then finally to Wan Hu. Despite Wan’s nonexistent nature, the Soviets named a lunar crater after him in 1966.  In 1970 the  International Astronomical Union accepted the name—so an ancient crater which measures 5km deep and 52km wide on the dark side of the moon permanently bears the name of the imaginary adventurer.  Surprisingly the Chinese have embraced Wan (choosing hopefully to admire his courage and foresight rather than his safety protocols) and there is a statue of him at Xichang Satellite Launch Centre.

Statue of Wan Hu reportedly located at Xichang Satellite Launch Centre

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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