on March 15th, 2024

Ever wondered about the process behind making fireworks? These spectacular displays, seen on occasions like New Year’s, Diwali, the Fourth of July, and Guy Fawkes Day, as well as personal events like weddings and parties, bring joy and celebration.  

But how exactly are they made, and what safety measures are in place during production? 

The History of Fireworks  

chinese alchemist creating fireworks
Chinese alchemist inventing fireworks

Legend holds that between 600 to 900 AD, a Chinese alchemist purportedly combined potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal, resulting in a black, flaky powder – the earliest form of gunpowder. This mixture was then filled into hollow bamboo sticks (and subsequently stiff paper tubes), marking the birth of man-made fireworks. 

Fireworks only arrived in Europe during the 13th century, gaining widespread usage by the 15th century for religious festivals and public entertainment. Italians pioneered European fireworks production, with rulers favoring their use to enchant subjects and illuminate castles on important occasions. 

Upon settling in the New World, early US colonists brought their affinity for fireworks, which became an integral part of the inaugural Independence Day celebrations.

The second US president, John Adams envisioned festivities marked by pomp, parade, bonfires, and illuminations; a tradition upheld every 4 July. As the nation’s celebratory spirit flourished, politicians incorporated fireworks into speeches to draw crowds in the late 18th century. 

By then, fireworks had traveled the world and made their way into every country.  

How Are Fireworks Made?  

Aerial fireworks are typically designed as shells composed of four main parts.  It also takes many engineers, scientists and pyrotechnicians.

These shells are housed within containers made of pasted paper and feature a fuse that propels and ignites them to the desired altitude before detonation.  

“When the fuse is lit, the gunpowder explodes, creating enough heat and gas to propel the shell into the sky. 

In just a few seconds, the shell is high enough that the time-delay fuse inside the shell ignites, causing the bursting charge to explode. This sets off the gunpowder, which causes the entire shell to explode, sending the stars in all directions and creating the shapes and lights of fireworks,” said SciBytes, an information series produced by SciSTIP.  

Similar in function to a firecracker, this charge is responsible for dispersing the stars—small spheres containing pyrotechnic compounds—into the night sky. 

These stars, often resembling sparklers in appearance, are the components that create the dazzling bursts of light and vibrant colors characteristic of fireworks displays. Composed of carefully selected chemical compounds, an oxidizing agent, fuel, colorant, and binder the stars ignite upon detonation of the bursting charge, producing a shower of colorful lights. 

The interspersing of stars throughout the firework shell ensures an even distribution of light and color, creating stunning patterns and formations as they scatter in all directions upon explosion. This meticulous arrangement, coupled with the precise timing of detonation, contributes to the artistry and beauty of the fireworks. 

The specific pattern of a firework is determined by the arrangement of stars within the shell. Manufacturers carefully design these patterns, outlining them with stars and surrounding them with a special charge to ensure simultaneous separation upon detonation. 

To make different shapes, stars are put on a piece of cardboard in the required shape. For example, if the stars are arranged to look like a tree on cardboard – when they light up, they will explode into a tree in the sky. 

For those who have witnessed fireworks that seem to explode in multiple stages, these are often special “multi-break” shells—essentially shells within shells designed to detonate at different intervals, adding complexity and intrigue to the spectacle. 

John Greer of Zambelli Fireworks, the largest firework producer in the world, said in an interview “People of all ages like it. Most of what we do as technicians is behind the scenes, they just see the results.”  

What It Takes to Make Fireworks  

Creating fireworks requires a blend of chemistry, engineering, and artistry.  

While anyone can experiment with homemade fireworks, producing them on a commercial scale or for professional displays requires specialized knowledge and skills. 

Chemistry plays a crucial role in formulating the pyrotechnic compositions that produce the desired colors, effects, and explosions. Understanding the chemical properties of various compounds and their reactions is essential for achieving consistent and safe results. 

Engineering expertise is necessary for designing the structural components of fireworks, such as the casings, fuses, and launch mechanisms. Engineers ensure that the fireworks are stable, reliable, and compliant with safety standards. 

Artistry comes into play in designing the visual aspects of fireworks displays, including the arrangement of stars, patterns, and choreography. Pyrotechnic designers use their creativity and aesthetic sense to craft captivating shows that delight and inspire audiences. 

Moreover, while formal education in engineering is not always a prerequisite for making fireworks, individuals involved in the industry often possess a combination of technical expertise, practical experience, and artistic flair to create stunning pyrotechnic displays.  

Additionally, adherence to safety protocols and regulations is paramount to ensure the responsible production and use of fireworks. 

Safety Precautions  

When creating fireworks, technicians must adhere to strict safety precautions to minimize the risk of accidents. Some essential safety measures include: 

  1. Proper Training: Technicians should undergo thorough training in pyrotechnics to understand the handling, mixing, and ignition processes safely. 
  1. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Wearing appropriate PPE, such as safety glasses, gloves, and protective clothing, helps shield technicians from potential hazards. 
  1. Handling Chemicals Safely: Pyrotechnic compounds should be handled with care, following established protocols for storage, mixing, and disposal to prevent chemical accidents. 
  1. Fire Prevention: Work areas should be free from flammable materials, and fire extinguishers should be readily available in case of emergencies. 
  1. Ventilation: Adequate ventilation is essential to prevent the buildup of fumes and ensure a safe working environment. 
  1. Controlled Environment: Fireworks production should take place in a controlled environment, away from sources of ignition, and with proper containment measures in place. 
  1. Quality Control: Regular quality checks and testing help identify any potential issues early on, ensuring that only safe and reliable fireworks are produced. 
  1. Emergency Preparedness: Technicians should be trained in emergency procedures and have access to first aid supplies and emergency contact information. 

By strictly adhering to these safety precautions, technicians can minimize the risk of accidents and ensure the safe production of fireworks. 

Fireworks are not just dazzling displays of light and color, they are a testament to the ingenuity, creativity, and scientific knowledge of their creators. From their ancient origins to modern-day celebrations, fireworks continue to captivate audiences around the world, bringing joy and wonder to special occasions. 

References  

Zambelli Fireworks  

The Anatomy of a Fireworks Show 

How to Make Fireworks  

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