With the Fourth of July--or as me and my bud Bill "President of Earth" Pullman call it, "OUR Independence Day"--upon us we figured it would be a cool idea to take a little look-see around the interweb and find out just how the heck those glorious, and occasionally magical firework displays work.
According to Newsweek, fireworks were originally used in 12th century China to frighten off evil spirits. Now, we use them to celebrate our Nation's toppling of a tyrannical government, frightening not evil spirits, but family dogs, who promptly hide under the bed.
Fireworks, or AERIAL fireworks--as they call them in the biz--are HAND-made from a shell that consists of 4 parts; the container, the stars, the bursting charge and the fuse. All of which is launched from a mortar--typically a steel pipe of some sort that is stuffed with black gunpowder--launching the shell into the sky to the rousing sounds of "oooo's and aaaah's."
The container is usually made from cardboard and formed into a cylinder shape, then stuffed to the gills with gunpowder.
The stars are spheres or other shapes that are made from gunpowder, chemical pigments (coloring), and a binding agent. These are the little buggers that explode and sparkle into those majestic shapes and sounds like stars, planets and so on--depending on how they're arranged in the gunpowder.
The bursting charge is an explosive at the center of shell.
The fuse is that stringy thing that Wile E. Coyote can't quite figure out. The fuse times the explosion to perfectly POP at the right spot in the night sky.
So basically, a pyrotechnician (firework pro guy) fires the shell from a mortar, which lights the fuse, the fuse BOOM's the bursting charge, which sends the stars sailing, the stars burn and burst and sparkle into various shapes...and the crowd goes wild!
There are also slightly more complicated, "Multibreak" shells that burst at several different times to create more intricate and exciting shapes and designs. These are the types of fireworks that pop, pow, pew, whistle, twist, twirl and hiss. Multibreak shells are what you'll see during high-end productions like those of the world-famous Grucci Brothers, who put together Macy's in NYC.
How Stuff Works lists some different types multibreak shells:
Palm: Contains large comets, or charges in the shape of a solid cylinder, that travel outward, explode and then curve downward like the limbs of a palm tree
Round shell: Explodes in a spherical shape, usually of colored stars
Ring shell: Explodes to produce a symmetrical ring of stars
Willow: Contains stars (high charcoal composition makes them long-burning) that fall in the shape of willow branches and may even stay visible until they hit the ground
Roundel: Bursts into a circle of maroon shells that explode in sequence
Chrysanthemum: Bursts into a spherical pattern of stars that leave a visible trail, with an effect somewhat suggestive of the flower
Pistil: Like a chrysanthemum shell, but has a core that is a different color from the outer stars
Maroon shell: Makes a loud bang
Serpentine: Bursts to send small tubes of incendiaries skittering outward in random paths, which may culminate in exploding stars
So that's pretty much it. Fireworks are surprisingly simple. But in the interest of terrible puns, allow me to suggest that they sure get more BANG for the buck!
Happy 4th of July!