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E-cyclopedia Tuesday, 17 November, 1998, 15:32 GMT
So who thought a hand-held firework was a good idea?
They burn at several thousand degrees, hot enough, in fact, to melt gold. And yet you give them to young children to hold in their hands.

If sparklers were a new invention, the chances are most parents would not like the sound of them; for themselves, let alone their six-year-old children.

Yet up and down the country this weekend, millions of beaming young faces will light up as they discover the joy of joined-up writing.

Older kids will pretend to be smokers as they casually ask a friend for a light.

Sparklers are everywhere on Guy Fawkes night - 5 November. In fact they are so popular, the main thrust of the government's public safety campaign this year is the threat they pose.

Half of all firework-related injuries are down to sparklers, we are warned. And yet for many people, waving a sparkler is the definitive Bonfire Night experience.

So who's the bright spark?

You might blame the Chinese. They are credited with inventing fireworks - probably at around the time of Christ - although it is known that the Ancient Greeks and the Romans used fireworks to some degree in battles, to rain down fire on enemies.

There was also an element of fireworks in religious ceremonies in ancient India.

But the architect Callinicos of Heliopolis, in about AD 670, seems to be responsible for holding fireworks in the hand.

He introduced what were, in effect, huge Roman candles to the front of ships. The cheirosiphon was a smaller, hand-held version.

See that barium nitrate go
It was a few hundred years before fireworks reached Europe, brought by the returning Crusaders.

Their first reported use in England was at the wedding of Henry VII in 1486. Elizabeth I had a full-time fireworks master to organise displays.

Then came Guy Fawkes's 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. For the fireworks industry at least, the rest is history.

Yet while rockets, Roman candles and bangers seem to have roots in pyrotechnology's oldest traditions, the origins of sparklers are not so clear.

One clue is the first recorded use of aluminium in fireworks, in 1894 - the very material that tends to give sparklers their brilliant brightness.

Nearly 25 years earlier, in 1870, Octavius Hunt - a name later to become synonymous with sparklers - set up a match making company in Bristol (which was eventually bought by Bryant and May).

Barry Sturman notes in the Fireworks Journal that it was not until 1936, after Hunt's death, that the firm purchased an early sparkler formula from a German company.

"The technique of manufacturing the sparklers was refined at Octavius Hunt Ltd to produce sparklers recognised as the best in the world," he wrote.

So there's no easy answer to who invented sparklers.

They are no longer produced in Britain, and most imports come from the Czech Republic, India, and, fittingly, China.


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