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The Art of Fireworks

Here in the United States, we recently celebrated Independence Day (also called the Fourth of July). One of the most beloved Fourth of July traditions is fireworks, and I enjoyed a nice display this weekend. During the show, I found myself wondering how fireworks are designed and made. How are the different colors, patterns, and effects created? Then, I started thinking that a really spectacular fireworks show is actually an art form, even though nobody ever talks about it as such.

Fireworks in Nice by Nicolas Tarkhoff
Nicolas Tarkhoff, Fireworks in Nice, date unknown. Private collection. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

This morning, I went in search of some information about the art and science of fireworks. Here is what I learned.

  • Fireworks are a very old tradition. They were first invented in ancient China, but they didn’t acquire their fancy colors and patterns until much more recently. This explains why, when I went looking for paintings of fireworks, most of the scenes I found showed amorphous showers of whitish-yellow sparks.
  • They would have been part of the elaborate pageants and ceremonies that artists like Leonardo da Vinci contributed to at the great royal courts of the European Renaissance. They were also present at American’s original independence celebrations in the late-18th century. (Ok, I already knew these two facts. I didn’t learn them today.)
  • The colors reflect changing temperatures caused by the addition of different metals. This is pretty much what I figured, since I already knew that fire takes on different colors at different temperatures. However, I was surprised to learn that blue fireworks – so prevalent in American fireworks shows – are the most difficult to make.
  • Fireworks makers create designs by how they arrange materials inside the main body of the cannister. For example, little packets (called “stars”) are created in such a way that they shoot out and explode separately after the first explosion. The arrangement of the stars in the cannister dictates the shape of the firework. A single firework can have multiple layers of stars and sub-cannisters to create elaborate effects that go off in stages once the firework is in the sky.
  • The designs have names. The most familiar designs are mainly named after flowers.
  • The length of the fuse has to be carefully measured so that the firework reaches the desired height in the air before it goes off.
  • These days, fireworks are often deployed via computer. This makes things much safer for fireworks operators. It looks like a fireworks show is programmed similarly to how lighting is programmed in a theatre.

Obviously, I’m not a fireworks expect just because I read a few articles. To learn from the actual experts, I highly suggest that you consult the same sources I did:
Wonder of the Day #550: How Are Fireworks Made?” Wonderopolis.org.
ABC ME. “How Are Fireworks Made?” YouTube.com. July 24, 2017.
Brain, Marshall. “How Fireworks Work“. HowStuffWorks.com. June 30, 2000.
Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. “The Chemistry of Firework Colors“. ThoughtCo, Jul. 1, 2019.
Smith, Paul E. “Why Blue Fireworks Are Harder To Make Than You Think“. NationalInterest.org. July 3, 2019.
WIRED. “Pyrotechnics Pro Explains the Art of a Massive Fireworks Show“. YouTube.com. July 3, 2018.

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