Created | Updated Jun 1, 2006
It is unclear exactly how the mixture of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal was discovered to make what we know today as gunpowder. However, we do know that flying fireworks have been around for centuries. It is also certain, based on the popularity of these explosives, that setting off fireworks is really good fun.
The discovery of gunpowder and subsequent invention of fireworks is generally credited to the Chinese. Some evidence suggests that war rockets were made in China, as early as the 6th Century, and that the practice then spread to Arabia in the 7th Century, where these rockets were known as 'Chinese arrows'. A Chinese document dated around 1040 showed how to wrap gunpowder in paper to make a 'fire pill'. This small firecracker made a very loud bang, which was believed to scare off evil spirits. Almost any special event then became an occasion to use these noisemakers.
Fireworks made their way to Europe sometime in the 13th Century. While Crusaders and the Knights Templar most likely carried them back from the East, some believe gunpowder was discovered independently in Europe around this time. The popularity of fireworks grew, and by the early 1500s the military was lighting them for special events.
The Italians were the first Europeans to manufacture fireworks and were the undisputed masters through the 17th Century. Throughout Europe, Italian fireworks were used in religious festivals and other distinguished events to celebrate these occasions.
Over the course of time, fireworks have become a traditional way to memorialize distinguished as well as whimsical occasions across the planet. Events throughout the world are celebrated with fiery flowers and monumental reports1 in the sky. Examples of such events are Bonfire Night in England, 4 July Independence celebrations in America, and New Years festivities.
The creation of fireworks is an art form that entertains millions of people throughout the world. There are many different types of fireworks, but they are all made in pretty much the same way. Compounds are placed in a shell, then the whole thing is wrapped up, and then a fuse is added. Voilà, you have a firework. In the factories where fireworks are made, safety precautions are in effect to ensure that a single static electric shock doesn't create a catastrophe.
Pyrotechnicians, who are experts in the handling of explosives, design fireworks using different chemical compounds that create spectacular results2. Many supplies go into the creation of fireworks including fuses, ignition supplies, plastic bases, shells, and tubes, to name a few. Chemicals, from acetone to zinc stearate, are used for special effects as well as binding agents, solvents, catalysts, and propellants.
When rocket type fireworks are ignited, a gunpowder-like substance explodes, creating gasses that shoot the firework into the air. Another charge takes a certain amount of time to reach a certain altitude. Then another charge causes it to blow up, releasing fine metal powders into the air. The electrons in these metal particles become hot and excited, giving off light, called photons.
Magnesium is the compound that gives off the bright white light in fireworks. This happens when the magnesium is suddenly exposed to oxygen, to which it is very sensitive, and that exposure causes the compound to burn. Other metals or transition elements that have electrons can also be used. When their particles get hot, they give off photons in the visible spectrum, which is how the colors in fireworks are created.
Types of Fireworks
The fireworks industry is heavily regulated, and with good reason. There are two basic classes of fireworks: those that are available to the general public, known as consumer fireworks, and those that are for professional use, known as display fireworks. Laws regarding the manufacturing, sales, purchase, and use of fireworks vary by country, state and/or local province/county/city. Generally speaking, the use of consumer fireworks require no special paperwork, while special licensing and permits are required for the purchase and use of display fireworks.
Some of the different types of fireworks3:
Rocket type: Rockets are actually powered by an internal engine. The rocket type of firework has more in common with a mortar shell than it does with a space rocket. These fly through the air when ignited. They sometimes carry parachutes, stars4, or big bangs when they reach the peak of their flight.
Roman candles: These long tubes shoot compact balls of chemicals from one end, creating a series of flaming stars. Inside the tubes, the chemical balls are packed one on top of the other, with layers of sawdust between them.
Fountains: These are cone-shaped and sit on the ground. A hole in the top allows gases to escape, shooting coloured sparks into the air.
Smoke bombs: They smoke a colourful smoke. That is all they do, so what more can one say about them?
Sparklers: These are long pieces of wire. Half of the length of the wire is covered in chemicals that give off bright sparkles of light when lit. The sparks burn off at 1650°F. Sparklers are credited with causing some of the most serious firework accidents.
Aerial shells: These are the kings of fireworks. The most spectacular visually, and usually the loudest. These are the ones the professionals use. These are launched the same way military mortar shells are launched. After placing the shell into a skyward facing tube, an external fuse is lit. The explosion of the lift charge inside the tube then launches the shell.
Use of fireworks
Safety is very important and cannot be stressed enough when using fireworks. Most precautions are obvious, but it is important to keep the not-so-obvious tips in mind as well.
Observe laws in your jurisdiction.
Read the warning label on the firework.
Wear safety glasses. Yeah, they look silly, but they may save your eyesight.
Wear somewhat tight-fitting clothing. Loose clothing, like long floppy sleeves and such, will more easily catch fire.
Light fireworks in an open area on a flat hard surface.
Keep a fire extinguishing device handy just in case. A bucket of water, a pail of sand, or a fire extinguisher all work nicely.
Do not drink alcoholic beverages and use fireworks. This puts everyone involved in more danger.
Never use fireworks indoors.
Do not throw or light a firework near anyone and make sure the firework is not pointing at any person/animal/thing.
Only one or two people should be lighting fireworks to avoid confusion.
Light fireworks away from your body.
Step away from the firework as soon as it is lit.
Never place your head, hands, or any other part of your body above the firework.
Pets hate loud noises and big flashes. So as not to traumatize them, keep them away from the fireworks.
Store your fireworks in a safe place, preferably not in a common room.
Never carry fireworks in your pocket.
Only buy fireworks from a licensed dealer.
Setting off fireworks is a blast when memorialising festive occasions. Fireworks create a sense of wonder, excitement, and surprise. As long as you are careful, this can be good clean family fun.