THAT RAUCOUS RITE OF SUMMER—the fireworks display—may have started as a scholarly tradition in ancient China. Before the Chinese got around to inventing paper in the second century A.D., scribes, using a stylus, would etch ideograms on the rounded surface of green bamboo stalks. The medium served as a way for recording transactions and stories. As the stalks dried over the fire, air pockets in the wood would often burst with a loud cracking noise.

The noise, of course, gradually became the whole point of the exercise. The classic I Ching, or Book of Changes, explains how the cracks and pops succeeded in scaring off the Shan Shan, 10-foot-tall mountain men. Later, the Chinese spiced things up by adding gunpowder to the stalks.

The first fireworks display didn't take place until the 12th century rolled around. In 1267 English philosopher Roger Bacon wrote about “that toy of children” and the “horrible sound” it produces, which “exceeds the roar of sharp thunder.” Those sharp bangs evoke nothing more than, yes, another Fourth of July celebration.