The Question

There's Surprisingly Advanced Technology Behind Your Favorite Fireworks Shows

The United States has been shooting off fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July since 1777. But the fireworks of today are a lot more advanced than the ones at George Washington's backyard barbecue. It's not just about new colors and bigger explosions; it's also about the way that modern fireworks shows are composed like symphonies. They're a bit more complicated than lighting a fuse and running for cover.

Why Some Go "Weee!" and Some Go "KRRPSHHHH!"

There are a million different kinds of fireworks out there. There are the ones that explode in a giant ball of strangely colored flame; the ones that kerplow in the shape of a ringed planet; the ones that whistle all the way up; and the ones that boom so powerfully that your spine rattles. But it hasn't always been that way. Some time in the Italian Renaissance, pyrotechnicians realized they could get additional colors out of their kablams by adding ingredients like charcoal and steel. Today, they can conjure virtually any color imaginable by packing the gunpowder in various metal salts — copper for blue, barium for green, and strontium for red.

Besides the color, the things that set fireworks apart from each other are their size, sound, and shape. All three of those come down to the design of the shell. When you cram a lot of gunpowder into a small container, that's when you get a huge bang. For a whistle, you need slow-burning chemicals pushing a steady stream of gas through a narrow tube. And to make a crackling sound, a firework has to be full of lead oxide, which pops and fizzles as it vaporizes in the air. As for the shape of the explosion, that depends on the arrangement of the firework's "stars," the small, explosive studs that spark into the actual points of light.

Digitizing Independence Day

New ingredients and shell designs may have opened up a world of colors and shapes, but digital innovations are what really made modern fireworks displays possible. Programs such as Finale Fireworks make creating a show a lot like composing a piece of music. You choose a soundtrack and backdrop, then drag and drop different types of fireworks into the extravaganza of your dreams. Wildest of all, when your simulated grand finale is complete, you can export the show to a computerized firework-firing system. The result? Incredible shapes in the sky that couldn't be drawn without the precision of a digital system. That's how we finally got the smiley face–shaped explosions the Founding Fathers could only dream of.

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Learn more about the story of these colorful explosions in "Firecrackers: The Art and History" by Warren Dotz, Jack Mingo, and George Moyer. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 30, 2017

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