If you’re setting off fireworks to celebrate, you’re participating in a tradition that is as old as gunpowder itself — and maybe even older than that. You’re also, whether you intend to or not, trying to ward off evil spirits in the fashion of the ancient Chinese. Though we can’t speak to the efficacy of this approach, we can all pretty much agree on its beauty. Fireworks make New Year’s Eve beautiful. Ditto July 4. Ditto any other event, for that matter.

To better appreciate these explosive light shows, it’s helpful to have some context. Here’s a timeline showing how fireworks were created, how they evolved, and what’s likely to explode in the sky above you sometime soon.

Photos via Norman Wilkinson (Flickr)