Fireworks: What Makes Them Tick?

There’s nothing more American than fireworks, right? Wrong. A Chinese monk, the story goes, invented the stuff over 1,000 years ago to scare off ghosts. It was simple enough then, as it is now: he filled bamboo with gunpowder and lit it on fire for a boom.

That’s essentially what you’re getting with a typical roadside firework: a shell, some explosive, and a fuse to light on fire. But the things have gotten substantially trickier when you look at the mechanics behind the extravagant displays used to celebrate the Fourth of July. For instance, it took until the Renaissance for pyrotechnicians to begin adding different compounds—such as charcoal, strontium, barium, and copper—to create a dazzling show of different colors.

And it gets even more complicated from there. People tend to like seeing their explosions in the sky—you know, rather than on the ground. So this package of metal powders is attached to a mortar (basically a small cannon). The mortar is one fuse. The other is usually a time-delay fuse that is carefully worked to explode at the exact right time. A string of these can be used to create a “repeater” firework that produces a series of explosions, often of different color and effect. Often these fireworks feature so-called “stars,” small explosive spheres. These create (up to) thousands of points of light inside the time-delayed capsule that can be precisely arranged for specific design and effect.

Below is a diagram from Verge that displays the insides of a firework, but we at The Airspace urge you not to try to build your own (over 5,000 people—often children with “innocuous” sparkers and bottle rockets—will end up in the emergency room because of Fourth celebrations, and an average of 17,800 accidental fires are started)

And did you know: America doesn’t even hold the record for largest pyrotechnic display? That record goes to Kuwait, who in 2012 celebrated their 50th anniversary with 77,282 fireworks launched over a 3-mile span of coastline in just over an hour. America does spend around $645 million per year on fireworks (for about 207.5 pounds of that explosive stuff). Nevertheless, most of these were imported from the firework’s homeland, China.


How do fireworks work?” by Adrianna Jeffries, The Verge
5 Dazzling Facts About Fireworks” by Megan Gannon, Live Science

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