Wednesday, July 27, 2011
This is a very interesting analysis (thanks, Kristen Grady, for sending the link!) which takes the nations of the world and divides them up into four categories, based on mean income, and then plots the national population by population density per square mile. It then looks at health and quality-of-life variables - again, divided up by these four economic categories: life expectancy, deaths of children under the age of five, access to improved sanitation, deaths from infectious diseases, years of education, literacy rate, fertility rate, population increase rate, migration rate, urban population, telephones, Internet users, computers in household, cars, and carbon emissions.
The graphics are beautiful, but tell a story of a starkly divided world, highly differentiated, not so much into the “haves” and “have-nots,” but something much more nuanced and complicated. Still, the main take-away message is that most of the people in the world (4 billion) fall into the second to the lowest income category (from $996 to $3495 per year) and, along with those in the very lowest income category (1 billion), bear most of the burdens of disease, low life expectancy, childhood mortality, and have the fewest of the benefits or ostensible benefits (computers, cars, telephones, higher literacy rates, longer life expectancy, access to improved sanitation, etc.). Those in the highest income category (1 billion) who do enjoy these benefits to a large degree, also, naturally, have the highest levels of carbon emissions, even though it is precisely those lower-income countries that are most likely to be negatively impacted by the effects of global climate change caused by excessive carbon emissions. See the National Geographic website for the maps, etc., at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/03/age-of-man/map-interactive
The video “How big is Seven Billion” can be seen here:
Of course, as with any statistical information compiled and mapped on the national level, much is obscured: the intra-national differences in income and other variables within countries. This is evidenced by the well-known map of the Los Angeles area showing infant mortality rates of different neighborhoods by naming the countries that had similar rates. Parts of LA had rates that were similar to Bangladesh, and parts were similar to Sweden’s rates. Although I can not locate that particular map at the moment, here are a couple of maps that I found in a similar vein, which point out one of the major problems with dealing with national scale data – it masks what are sometimes huge differences within countries, especially large countries like the U.S. that have large inequities amongst its regions and sub-populations.
infant mortality map
life expectancy map - Please don't focus on the strange (non-) projection!!
Also, in the National Geographic’s year-long population series,
“Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man
It’s a new name for a new geologic epoch—one defined by our own massive impact on the planet. That mark will endure in the geologic record long after our cities have crumbled.”
Monday, July 25, 2011
Map of Durham by John Speed, 1610. The Cathedral and Castle are shown, as is the River Wear, which surrounds the city on three sides.
Welcome to Durham City! Modern tourist map, which unfortunately leaves out many of the streets, footpaths, and “vennels,” little alleyways and lanes just wide enough (maybe!) for two people to pass, which act as shortcuts through the city. Still, you can see the unmistakable meander of the River Wear around the city.
As some of you know, I have just spent the past few weeks in England, mainly for the purpose of attending the International Medical Geography Symposium at the University of Durham, in northeastern England. So it wasn’t a true, unadulterated vacation, per se, although it was very enjoyable. Without having this blog posting turn into a travelogue, I would like to record some of my random thoughts about being back in England for the first time since 1997 – Holy Smokes, almost 15 years ago! I have visited the British Isles numerous times, the first time back in 1969. When a very much younger friend recently asked me why I decided to go to England way back then, I had a hard time putting it into words. It was the ‘60’s! It’s where you went if you were young, into music, fashion, and “youth culture” stuff. It was Swinging London! The silly old (truly awful!) country music song by Roger Miller popped into my head: “England swings like a pendulum do!” (1965)
England swings like a pendulum do.
Bobbies on bicycles, two by two
Westminster Abby, the Tower of Big Ben,
The rosy red cheeks of the little child-ren
There are so many great songs about England and London, I can't understand why this particular ditty was the first one that came to mind! also, you know you’re getting old when one of the comments under the YouTube video says “My grandfather used to listen to this song” (!!)
As I settled in for the train ride from King’s Cross station to Durham, where the conference was being held, I noticed some beautiful/funny/strange/interesting things from the train window:
- The train tracks were lined the entire way, nearly three hours of relatively fast-moving train clackety-clack, with vast linear clumps of wild lavender, interspersed with purple and white butterfly bushes;
- A Wind Turbine farm, wind mills turning furiously in the north winds.
- Three nuclear power plants, (in the space of about 1 hour of train travel time) one of which had at least 12 cooling towers – The British, and Europeans in general, rely much more heavily on nuclear power than the U.S. does;
- A soggy looking bright green field with a banner strung between two poles, proudly announcing “British Soy Grown Here”;
- Another field of some low grass-like crop, with a little wooden desk sitting incongruously alone in the middle of the field;
- A sign on a storefront in one of the towns, saying “Pumpkin Smith” - what could that mean? They fix pumpkins? They make jack-o'-lanterns?;
- An ordinary-looking mundane storefront, with the ominous sign (in purple) reading “The FuneralCare Cooperative.” What next.
The most arresting feature of East Coast train travel in Britain is the plethora of fields, hemmed in by hedgerows, some with grazing animals, and quite rural in appearance, considering it starts pretty much as soon as you leave the London suburbs. Many of the little towns along the way were obviously market towns back in the day (and perhaps still are considered so), the railroad was built to connect these places to the city to provide fresh produce, eggs, meat, etc. There is a bit of industry here and there, but it is a very bucolic landscape that one rides through, now-a-days.
Town Mining Banner of Ashington
I arrived in Durham on the annual Miner’s Day Gala. The villages all around here were coal mining communities, and once a year all the old mining towns gather their people together, have marching bands parade through the towns, then put everybody on a coach to Durham, the central city of the surrounding hinterlands. All the mining villages march under their own banners, and have a big festival on the Palace Green. This has been a tradition for 127 years and it remains the largest socialist trade union event in the world - even though the last coal mine in this region closed in 1994, and most of the other hundreds of mines closed in the turbulent period of nationalization and union-busting 1950’s through the 1970’s. In 1919 there had been quarter of a million coal miners employed in this county. It was a major way of life in the area, with generations of men in the same families working in the same mines, often starting as young as 13 years old, in the days before compulsory schooling until 16. The mining identity is still firmly rooted in the collective psyche of the region.
View of the Cathedral Tower and the Castle Keep from the Framwelgate Bridge, the River Wear below.
Durham is a very old settlement, with evidence of human habitation since at least 2,000 BC. Durham gets its name from the Old English “Dun” meaning hill, and “Holme,” from the Old Norse, meaning island. The Cathedral, Castle, Market Place, and the older parts of the University sit on a near-island in the middle of a meander of the River Wear, which effectively forms a moat around three sides of the city. This came in useful when Durham was a kind of de facto northern defensive outpost against the Scots. The old Prebends Bridge has a plaque of Sir Walter Scot’s words about Durham: “Grey towers of Durham; Yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles; Half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot; And long to roam these venerable aisles; With records stored of deeds long since forgot.”
The Prebends Bridge, built in 1772 by George Nicholson, currently damaged by water seepage and under restoration, is a Grade 1 listed structure in the UK, meaning the highest class of buildings of exceptional worth. (A “prebend,” btw, is a stipend furnished to an abbott or other clergyman from the cathedral or collegiate church. Most likely the abbott’s prebend was used to construct the bridge, hence its name.)
View of the Cathedral Tower through the tracery windows of the Cloisters.
The Cathedral is considered to be the finest example of Norman architecture in the world, and UNESCO has designated it, along with the Castle and other venerable parts of the city, a World Heritage Site. The Bishopric dates from 995 AD, the present cathedral was founded in 1093, and it houses the Shrine of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, the head of St. Oswald, and the remains of the Venerable Bede. Some things I found interesting: a wall plaque listing the names of all the Masters of the Organ and Choristers since 1534 down to the present Master. And there were fewer than twenty of them! Only 19 or so Masters of the Choristers separate us from 1534. Another plaque, detailing the service of one Richard Dawson (1736), his son, his grandson, and his great-grandson (1934), all “Agents of the Dean.” Can you imagine anyone nowadays having the same job for four generations?
Through the years, the city has been renowned for various industries, aside from coal mining: wool fulling, carpet making, (the famous Axminster rugs were made here) mustard processing, and also more recently, the setting for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. The Cathedral’s Chapter House was the film’s classroom, and there are Harry Potter references all over town. Durham is an ideal walking city, that is, if you don’t mind everything being both up AND down hills, steps, and footpaths! I did my share of walking, that’s for sure!
The conference organizers arranged a great field trip for us to the north. This is a small extant section of Hadrian’s Wall near Cawfields (built in roughly 122 AD), ostensibly to keep the Scots out of England, but most probably more for the purpose of collecting customs, tolls, duties, regulating commerce and population movements, and catching smugglers. Recent historians suspect that this was actually the main purpose of the wall, since the Romans were known for their love of taxation and control. In many places the wall would have been about 20 feet high, with small fortlets called Milecastles located every mile along it. The excellent Roman-quarried-and-dressed stones were re-purposed by local farmers for their farmsteads and sheep pens, in the intervening centuries since the Romans pulled out of Britain. (In a move worthy of the famous President Ford headline when NYC was facing bankruptcy in the 1970’s – “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” the Emperor Honorius said in 412 AD that Roman troops would no longer be able to protect Britain against invaders, and he withdrew most of the soldiers, who were from all over the Empire, as well as ceased support for the administrative infrastructure, leaving the British people to their own devices. Enter: the Dark Ages.)
The Medical Geography conference was excellent – so many good paper presentations, and interesting people to meet. The conference organizers also made sure we got a little taste of various aspects of the University, the city, and the region as a whole by staging several events: they hosted a reception for the conference participants in the halls and croquet lawn of St. Chad’s College, one of the older colleges in the University; they took us on a field trip to a Colliery Museum and Interpretive Centre, Hadrian’s Wall, and excavations of a Roman Fort circa 80 AD; and they had a banquet for us at Beamish Hall, a beautiful 18th century country estate (with Norman origins going back to the 12th century). Kudos to the IMGS and Durham University for a wonderful conference.
The Department of Geography at Durham University in its very own BUILDING! (photo source: ROBUST webpage of the Durham University Institute for Hazard, Risk, and Resilience.)
One of the noteworthy things about the UK (as well as other parts of Europe) is the seriousness with which they take Geography as a discipline. They (the academics) actually seem to hold it in high esteem! So refreshingly different from the way Geography (and geographers) are viewed in the U.S., if, indeed, anyone thinks about them at all! I had several interesting conversations with British Ph.D. students and faculty about why this might be so, but we could come to no definitive conclusions. In the U.K., students actually view Geography as a practical, advantageous, and desirable subject to study. In the U.S., Geography is a bit of a mystery discipline, certainly to lay people, and even within academia. Are we natural scientists? Well, if you are a climatologist, oceanographer, hazards specialist, a geomorphologist, or physical geographer of any stripe, the answer is probably a resounding borderline “yes”! All others are relegated to the realm of social science, not that there’s anything wrong with it! But I find that “science” as opposed to “social science” has a higher degree of importance, respect, and cachet in the US, especially when applying for grant funding. NSF has actually turned down applications for geosciences projects written by geographers, saying that Geography was not a Geoscience! Hey, we are the ORIGINAL Geoscience, you nimrods! Just ask Eratosthenes! In the US no one seems to know, really, what geographers do. At Durham University, the Geography Department has their very own, very new and attractively-designed, technologically state-of-the-art building. An entire building! And they seem to have more Geography faculty than my department has students! AND, the building is centrally located in the University’s “Science Site.” Ah, well!
When I returned to London for a few days after my time in Durham, there were a number of things on my “to-do” list. I wanted to see the new exhibit of hand-drawn maps of London at the London Museum, and I wanted to visit the Royal Geographical Society. I managed to do both, and also to take a little tourist cruise on the Thames River, to see all the waterfront development that has taken place in the intervening years since I’ve been there - the building affectionately known as the “Gherkin” because of its shape (see photo to the left), the Shard of Glass (which will be the tallest building in Europe when complete, and looks like, well, a shard of glass), the London Eye (huge Ferris wheel), and also to see all the posh new housing along the riverfront. The river cruise was also intended to serve the dual purpose of getting me to Greenwich without having to walk through that mile-long scary, all white-tile-surfaced pedestrian tunnel from the Docklands underneath the Thames! A clostrophobic's worst nightmare! Never again! I wanted to get to Greenwich, of course, to visit once again the Royal Greenwich Observatory, founded in 1675 (you know, Greenwich - where the Prime Meridian slices the earth into longitude west and longitude east, and also the epicenter of Greenwich Mean Time, from which all other times are reckoned). You have to hand it to the British geographers – they got to say not only where Time starts, but also where Longitude 00o00’00” is! Very clever of them!
Charles Booth’s Poverty Map Room in the London Museum
The London Museum provides a fascinating look at the history of what is now the City of London, going back to before the last Ice Age, through the Celts, Roman times, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and so forth, up to the present. There’s a nice section of maps of the Thames River, showing how the course of the river was altered, quite drastically, by climate and environmental conditions over the past millennia. There was a whole room dedicated to Charles Booth’s poverty maps of London in the 19th century, wherein he categorized every street in the city as to its apparent socio-economic status. He (and his minions) actually walked every street in London with little notebooks, jotting down observations and little sketch maps. The room is papered with a large-scale facsimile of his maps, including the floor and ceiling, and there is an interactive computer embedded in one of the walls where you can zoom in on different sections of the city, pull up accompanying photos of the area, and read his neighborhood descriptions in the actual log book.
Detail of one of the Neighbourhood Maps
The Legend to the Maps (from the interactive computer map)
Notations from Booth’s Notebook on the Paddington area
“Charles Booth’s survey into life and labour in London, 1886-1903. Charles Booth’s survey was an ambitious attempt to assess the scale of poverty in London. Whereas artists and writers painted emotionally charged pictures of the poor, Booth wanted to map poverty scientifically. His researchers went out into London with the aim of assessing the social characteristics of every street. A ‘rough’ working-class area was defined as one with open doors, broken windows, prostitutes, thieves, and ‘a row always going on between warlike mothers.’ Flowerpots, lace curtains, scrubbed doorsteps and hanging birdcages were the hallmarks of a respectable neighourhood. Booth’s map provides an extraordinary snapshot of London at the end of the 19th century.” Source: Text from the London Museum exhibit.
"How I Spent My Summer Vacation" continues in the next two posts:
"Hand-Drawn Map from the London Museum" http://geographer-at-large.blogspot.com/2011/07/hand-drawn-maps-at-london-museum.html
"My Visit to the Royal Geographical Society" http://geographer-at-large.blogspot.com/2011/07/my-visit-to-royal-geographical-society.html
Right now the London Museum is hosting a small exhibit of hand-drawn maps of London in the museum’s entrance hall (through Sept. 11, 2011). This was also very interesting, and is an on-going effort on the part of the museum and something called the Londonist (similar to NYC’s Gothamist?) to assemble a collection of these maps from whomever wants to try their hand at producing one. I’ve included some of them here, with descriptions by their authors.
The Royal Geographical Society brass plaque on a large sturdy double wooden door – no, surprisingly, this is NOT the entrance! (although it may have been at one time)
Lastly, but certainly not least in my travels to England, was my visit to the Royal Geographical Society in London, established in 1830 to promote the advancement of geographical science, and counts amongst its Fellows some of the most illustrious explorers and geographers of the past nearly two centuries, including Charles Darwin, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Richard Burton, and Edmund Hillary. Although the history of the Society was closely linked to colonial exploration in its early years, having absorbed both the African Association and the Palestine Association, the Society's current mission is to be at the forefront of geographical research by funding contemporary geographical research projects rather than major exploratory expeditions, a recent move that proved quite controversial amongst some of its Fellows.
The Society’s headquarters is right outside Hyde Park, on Exhibition Road (just down the street from the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Imperial College London, the Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design, and many other cultural institutions - kind of like Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile in NYC). Exhibition Road was so named at the time of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park in 1851, (you know, the one with Joseph Paxton’s famous “Crystal Palace,” that set the bar for World’s Fairs ever since). The Road is all under construction right now, in a transformative effort to make the area a world class tourist attraction (in time for the London Olympics 2012). Apparently the design recently won the New London’s Place-making Award. See http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/exhibitionroad.aspx
The RGS Headquarters, view from the courtyard
The RGS headquarters are steeped in history, and it was more than slightly awe-inspiring to wander around the halls where so many “onlys” and “firsts” were casually displayed. Amongst the things I found pretty amazing to see were the following:
§ The Matteo Ricci world map, created in China in 1602. This map was highlighted in my post about the Method of Loci – the Memory Palace. The one here at RGS is the original! See http://geographer-at-large.blogspot.com/2011/06/method-of-loci-memory-palace.html
§ “The World on Mercator’s Projection, by Judicus Hondius, 1608, the only example known, Purchased by the Royal Geographical Society in London, 1919.” So says the brass plaque affixed to the frame. Just hanging in some under-lit random hallway!
§ “The World on the Stereographic Projection, by Joan Blaeu of Amsterdam, 1650, the only complete example known, Presented to the Royal Geographical Society by Lieut. Gen. Sir Arthur Paget, GCB, in 1920.”
The 1602 Ricci map, barely visible in this photo behind VERY reflective glass, incorporating and replicating the image of Fellows drinking tea under the portrait of Sir Edmund Hillary across the room.
There are also many portraits of eminent and lesser-known Fellows of yesteryear - in the Tearoom, for instance, just casually hanging above the table with the coffee pots, is a wonderful oil painting of a Fellow and his wife in “Arabian dress” - James Silk Buckingham, and his wife Elizabeth Jennings, labelled on the frame as: “James Silk Buckingham, traveller and author, 1786-1855 & his wife in Arab costume of Baghdad in 1816. Painted by H.W. Pickersgill, R.A. Presented by H. Swayne Drewry, Esq. 1916.”
I have no idea if this guy Buckingham (1786-1855) was a typical RGS Fellow, but I would like to think he was! He was the son of a farmer, went to sea at age 10, was a prisoner of war in 1797 (when he was 11!), lived in India and all over the world, for that matter, toured the U.S. and Canada at a time when traveling in the New World was precarious, to say the least, (and he wrote several volumes on America, including “Slave States of America,” and “America: Historical, Statistic, and Descriptive”). He founded and published a famously liberal and anti-East India Company newspaper in Calcutta (which got him into big trouble with the powers-that-be), wrote travel guides about the Arab world, was at one point a Member of Parliament for Sheffield (for five years), was an economic, social, and political reformer, strong anti-slavery advocate, promoted the repeal of the Corn Laws, abolishment of press-gang practices and flogging in the Navy. Plus, of all things, he developed plans for a Model City! (“National Evils and Practical Remedies with a Plan for A Model Town,” published in London by Peter Jackson, 1849.) From what I can gather, his model town combines elements of Ebenezer Howard’s much-later Garden City design, and what we would today call “co-housing.” And, best of all, medical services would be free, with doctors paid by the community, working to prevent disease rather than to cure it. In all, a stand-up sort of person, in my estimation, and one I am proud to be in company with as a RGS Fellow! http://www.library.cornell.edu/Reps/DOCS/buckham.htm for the Model Town info, general biographical info at http://www.archive.org/details/autobiographyofj01buck and http://www.xjt60.dial.pipex.com/id127.htm
As well, there are first edition books of the Fellows and other sundry memorabilia on display. For instance:
A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome, The so-called “Amazons,” The Grand Customs, The Yearly Customs, The Human Sacrifices, The Present State of the Slave Trade, and the Negro’s Place in Nature,
by Richard F. Burton, (Late Commissioner of Dahome,)
Author of “Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Meccah”
“If a man be ambitious to improve his knowledge and wisdom, he should travel into foreign countries,” Philostratus in Appoll.
“Every Kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer,” Gilbert White
In Two Volumes, Vol. I
Second Edition, London: Tinsley Brothers, 18, Catherine Street, Strand
Another amazing aspect of the Society’s headquarters is the Foyle Reading Room, where you can peruse the stacks containing past Society proceedings and journals, dating back to the early 1800’s – in their original editions. One of the early goals of the Society was to collect information - maps, drawings, and later on, photographs – which then became part of the Society’s library. It holds about 1 million maps, making it the largest private repository of maps in the world. There are another million or more books, letters, photos, and artifacts, including Darwin’s pocket compass, David Livingston’s log book and manuscript maps, and slave chains he brought back from Africa. You can check out the collections on-line at http://www.rgs.org/OurWork/Collections/Collections.htm , but in the Foyle Reading Room the staff will actually fetch many of the less fragile items for you to look at, up close and personal.
The RGS began admitting women as Fellows in 1913, this after many intrepid British women explorers had rather grudgingly been allowed to give talks in the Society beforehand, but not allowed to be elected as Fellows. In a public debate in 1893 on the matter of admitting women as Fellows, (“Can a Lady be a Fellow?”) the then-President of the Society, Lord Curzon, stated: “We contest in toto the general capability of women to contribute to scientific geographical knowledge. Their sex and training render them equally unfitted for exploration, and the genus of professional female globe-trotters with which America has lately familiarised us is one of the horrors of the latter end of the nineteenth century.” Meanwhile, Mrs. Bird-Bishop, having just returned from her expedition to Tibet in 1892, was invited to speak at the RGS, and refused, on the grounds that she would not speak in any venue that would not receive her as a member.
“Women travelers are not supposed to become experts on fish (as Mary Kingsley did), or discover unknown mountain chains (as Fanny Bullock Workman did), or provide statistical information about a country (as Isabella Bird-Bishop did),” from Sarah Mills, 1993, “Discourses of Difference: an analysis of women's travel writing and colonialism.” The irony of this ban on women RGS Fellows, of course, is that the mid- to late-19th century was the golden age of women explorers and geographers. See http://victorianresearch.org/wtravelbib2003.pdf for a bibliography of women travel writers from 1837-1910. I guarantee you will be surprised.
At the moment, the Society has mounted a very interesting exhibit of photos taken on the historic visit in 1938 of Princess Alice and her husband, the Earl of Athlone, to Saudi Arabia, (which had just become a nation a few years earlier). Britain, of course, figured in this story of nation-building by supporting the Sauds against their Ottoman overlords in the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, while the British were fighting the Turks anyway in WWI. (You may be familiar with a well-known part of the story – T.E. Lawrence, the dashing British officer known as Lawrence of Arabia, who led the Arab Revolt against the Turks, and was immortalized in the 1962 David Lean/Peter O’Toole film.)
While in the Society’s Tearoom on my recent visit there, I sat near two older lady RGS Fellows, who were having a conversation about where to travel next. The one started off by saying “well, if I’m still alive next year, I’d like to go to ….” That’s the spirit! Always make plans to travel, regardless of how old you are, as long as you can still move about!
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Phone Call Cartography
THE M.I.T. SENSEable City Lab has once again put together some beautiful spatial data visualizations – this time it is a project about seeing how Americans interconnect through mobile phones.
“If you analyze aggregated cellphone traffic, interesting patterns emerge. Cities become connective hubs as people move to them from nearby counties and from far across the country. As a result, many calls originate and end in cities, connecting urban citizens to their families back home. At the same time, communities emerge that have little to do with geographic boundaries. While some follow state lines, others split states in half or combine them…. These patterns show that proximity is only one of many factors — both cultural and economic — that bring people together.” From the New York Times article 7/3/11 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/03/sunday-review/03phone-map.html
Watch the video they have put together on the research (1 Minute long)
This is the link to an interactive map that allows you to plug in your own location and see the mobile phone traffic.
Check out their website for other projects they are working on. There is a particularly nice project on Singapore, complete with some very cool data visualizations about the city’s local transportation network, urban heat island, the effects of being the “hub of the world,” the world’s largest trans-shipment container port and one of the busiest airports in the world, among other topics. Singapore is such a unique place, being one of the world's last city-sates.
“As vehicular traffic opens up and jams in the course of the day, the time we need to move in Singapore shrinks and expands. How long will it take you to go from home to any other destination? Find out with this isochronic map, where the deformations are proportional to travel time - and reveals the changes in the course of a weekend/week day.” From M.I.T. SENSEable City Lab website
Check out the video and other visualizations at:
Saturday, July 2, 2011
United States Fourth of July Map
“Fireworks and firecrackers are always associated with positive occasions in life. It is associated with joy, victory, happiness and celebrations. Witnessing the colorful and iridescent burst of fireworks is a joy in itself. It creates a lively atmosphere. It sets the sparks of happiness and fun flying in our hearts and minds.”
What says Fourth of July better than fireworks? (OK, maybe waving the American flag a little bit, and some tofu burgers on the grill!). We had our little fireworks display up here at the lake last weekend, (we do it early, to avoid the higher price the pyrotechnics company charges on July Fourth weekend) and I have to say, for a small bungalow community, it was pretty spectacular. I got real up-close and personal with the fireworks display, got a stiff neck from craning skywards, the ringing eardrums, and (always the best!) lungfuls and eyefuls of the toxic smoke! That’s how close I was (I don’t claim that this was a smart thing to do, btw!) But it was worth it!
Brief History of Fireworks
Fireworks, it is widely believed, originated in China about 2,000 years ago. There are various stories about who invented them, but one version claims it was done accidentally by an anonymous cook who mixed charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter. He then stuffed the mixture in a bamboo tube, and an explosion occurred (what the devil was he really doing?). Anyway, that was the world’s first firecracker. Another story credits their invention to Li Tian, a monk, and on April 18th every year, the Chinese people celebrate (with fireworks, of course) and offer sacrifices to him in thanks for his creating fireworks. A minority opinion is that fireworks were first created in India. Fireworks in both Indian and Chinese civilization are regarded effective in warding off evil spirits, darkness and despair. Both cultures use fireworks extensively in birthdays, marriages, and festivals. China is also the world’s largest manufacturer of fireworks and the Liu Yang region of Hunan Province is famous for its production. To this day the Liu Yang region remains the main production area in the world for fireworks.
Liu Yang,in China’s Hunan Province, the world’s fireworks production center.
History of fireworks video (2 minutes)
It is said that Marco Polo brought fireworks back to Europe. Some say that it was the Crusaders. Either way, they quickly became popular in Europe, (and of course, the Europeans didn’t use them just to mark celebrations, but from the fireworks technology, developed the rudiments of gunpowder and firearms). By the 16th century, fireworks had become so culturally entrenched that Shakespeare mentioned fireworks in several of his plays, and Queen Elizabeth I created a position for a “Fire Master.” In later years, King James II, who was said to be fascinated with the display of fireworks, knighted the fire master. Fireworks were used to commemorate important events and military victories.
“A view of the Fireworks and Illuminations at his Grace, the Duke of Richmond’s at Whitehall and on the River Thames on Monday, 15 May, 1749. Performed by the direction of Charles Fredrick Esq.” Hand coloured etching showing the Royal Fire-workes and Illuminations in Whitehall and on the River Thames on Monday 15 May 1749. The occasion for which George Frideric Handel composed his Music for the Royal Fireworks. The firework display was for the benefit of King George II of Great Britain to celebrate the signing of the treaty at Aix la Chapelle in 1748 marking the end of the War of Austrian Succession. Unfortunately, during the display, one of the fireworks landed on the pavilion of the Temple of Peace, igniting the several thousand fireworks inside and killing three spectators.
Legality of Fireworks, State-by-State
Fireworks Atlas from Gizmodo
“If you're really into fireworks, maybe you should move your butt to any . But whatever you do, don't move to New York, New Jersey, Delaware or Massachusetts. They have a total ban. The awesome-est state is South Carolina. There they have prohibited any small rockets less than 3 inches long and half an inch thick. That's right: They have a ban on ridiculously sized fireworks. The nation's capital is, ironically, the lamest when it comes to celebrate the 4th of July. It doesn't have a total ban, but look at their description: Prohibited products include, but are not limited to, ‘firecrackers of any kind of description. Any fireworks that explode [...] or intended to move after the piece is placed and fires.’ Really, Washington DC? http://gizmodo.com/5817575/where-to-get-the-best-fireworks-in-america
In the United Sates of my youth, the southern states were where literally anything goes as far as fireworks purchasing by ordinary citizens. On the northern border of Virginia, I remember always seeing these little shacks and sheds as we drove by that advertised themselves as being the last place to stock up on fireworks (and cheap cigarettes). In New York City where I grew up, it was much more difficult to obtain them, and certain types were illegal, although I’m not sure if they were all banned outright the way they are in New York today. Back in those days, (summers at the lakehouse) we had a neighbor and family friend who was a NYC police officer, and every year he would put on a really good show in the neighborhood of all the NYPD-confiscated fireworks. No one thought this was ironic in any way, because “he knew what he was doing.”
Whatever the legal status of fireworks in New York, it has never prevented people from obtaining and firing off rounds of celebratory explosives. I can recall walking home through the East Village from the official (Macy’s) fireworks display along the East River and having thunderous firecrackers raining down on us from the rooftops of tenements. And people setting off bottle rockets from the rooftops, too. It was like walking through a war zone. I have to admit to some indiscretion in this account too, although it didn’t occur on Fourth of July, but rather on Bastille Day, many moons ago. A friend (who had access to confiscated materials that had been transported inter-state) and I went to the roof of my Far West Village townhouse and at around 1 AM decided that we would set off the fireworks, watch the pretty colors, and no one else would notice. Wrong. Unbeknownst to us (because we were in the middle of the roof and not at the edge) a huge crowd had gathered on the corner below to watch the display, the police eventually came, found us on the roof (it was a very hot and muggy NYC night, so we were slightly under-dressed for the occasion. We really didn’t expect to draw a crowd! Far less the police! I know, I know, what were we thinking?). They reprimanded us, (Dutch-Uncle stylee, not police stylee) but they actually allowed us to finish off the fireworks and then they dispersed the crowds. Those were the days!
Another map of the legality of fireworks, by state
Toxicity Issues and Typology of Visual Effects of Fireworks
There are many chemicals used in the manufacturing of fireworks like Aluminum, Barium, Carbon, Calcium, Chlorine, Copper, Iron, Potassium, Lithium, Magnesium, Sodium, Oxidizers, Phosphorus, Zinc, among others. Aluminum is chiefly used in sparklers for silvery white sparkles and flames while Barium is used to create a green color. Carbon works as a propellant and copper emits a blue color to the fireworks. Each chemical plays an important part in the reaction and the desired effect and movement is produced according to the proportion of the chemicals and the shape and design of the firework. Some of the chemicals used are toxic, and exposure can be dangerous.
Common fireworks (Aerial Effects) are the Peony, the Chrysanthemum, the Willow, the Palm, the diadem, the ring, crossette, horsetail, spider, and time rain. There are also ground displays, where the fireworks are not shot into the air, but burn/explode on wooden structures, such as spinning wheels. The Peony is the most common shell type of the aerial effects, described as “A spherical break of colored stars that burn without a tail effect.” The chrysanthemum is “A spherical break of colored stars, similar to a peony, but with stars that leave a visible trail of sparks,” and the Willow is similar, “but with long-burning silver or gold stars that produce a soft, dome-shaped weeping willow-like effect.”
Where to see 'em
A google map project where people can enter their fireworks location and photos of the event.
This is a clever map graphic “Fireworks for Cheaters,” for those who want to see the fireworks but avoid the crowds (in the Southern California area).