Credit for creating the world's first fireworks display probably goes to a prehistoric cook who sprinkled saltpeter seasoning on meat roasting over a charcoal fire.

"The popular theory," says chemist John Conkling, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, "is that the saltpeter hit the coals and the sparks flew."

The Chinese used this explosive knowledge (KNO3 + S + C = BOOM) to become history's pyrotechnic pioneers. Two thousand years ago they filled bamboo tubes with a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal to make noisemakers loud enough to blast away evil spirits. Those first fireworks were ignited to mark virtually any major event--from weddings to deaths.

Today's fireworks proclaim the arrival of spring in Germany, Holy Week in Mexico, the Day of Saints in South America and Bastille Day in France. But more are ignited for the United States' Independence Day, says APA, than for any other national celebration in the world.

"Fireworks are really a choreographed symphony for the eye," exults author George Plimpton, who serves as New York City's fireworks commissioner.

While some displays are, of course, merely a cacophony of colored lights, others are air-borne works of art created by skilled pyrotechnicians manipulating color, pace, breaks (individual explosions) and special effects.

Some other fireworks facts to help you appreciate the rockets red glare wherever you watch it:

* Blue and white are the most difficult colors for the pyrotechnician to make.

* The fanciest display shells have multiple breaks with many effects--either bursts of color made by individual pellets (called stars) or thunderous exposions produced by powder-filled cylinders (salutes).

* The French are famous for precise colors and dazzling multi-break shells, Brazilians for their novelty and sharpness, Italians for noise you can "feel in your belly," Americans for making shells bursting seven times or more.

* Spherical oriental shells burst in a spreading chrysanthemum shape that covers the sky. Cylindrical American shells burst in a random pattern with long-lasting colors.

* Pyrotechnic effects are based on the combustion of a solid fuel by an oxygen-containing salt, usually a metal nitrate or perchlorate.

* The mixture for early fireworks--saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal--was later called gun powder and was used in pyrotechnic engines of war.

* The first recorded fireworks display in England celebrated the wedding of Henry VII in 1487. Elizabeth I enjoyed them so much that she appointed a "Fire Master of England," and James II knighted his firemaster.

* George Frederick Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks"--which included the firing of 100 brass cannons--was commissioned for an extravaganza celebrating the end of the War of Austrian Succession in 1742. The six months of preparation resulted in a gigantic set with nearly 11,000 rockets and pinwheels. But as the event was beginning, an argument broke out between the English and Italian fireworkers and part of the set exploded. Although the show went on, it was a fiasco.

* Rockets, pinwheels and roman candles were standard features of 19th-century amusement parks in England and Europe. Special attractions were fiery spectacles advertised as "Eruptions of Mt. Etna" or "The Forge of Vulcan."

* The fireworks industry in America is largely a family business passed through the generations. The Rozzi family of Loveland, Ohio, is in at least its fourth generation in the business. Three generations worked together until recently, when the 80-year-old grandfather died. He was honored at his funeral by a fireworks extravaganza.