Summer marks the start of firework season here in the United States, with big shows being put on for the Fourth of July, but also, smaller backyard productions providing fun for partygoers and picnickers all summer long. Pop-up firework stores offer everything from sparklers to giant variety packs with names like “Dazzles,” “Equalizer,” and “Secret Garden” to satisfy any firework desire…or budget. But, have you ever wondered where fireworks come from and how they work? Those are the questions we’re aiming to answer in this episode of Facts to Relax.
I’m Yvonne Page Illustrates and on this channel I create videos to help you relax, fall asleep, and reduce stress and anxiety while sharing information about interesting topics that I research and report back to you on while digitally painting pictures on the screen to further relax your eyes. If you’re someone who likes to relax and who likes to learn new, random facts, consider subscribing to this channel and checking back often as I add new videos weekly. So, to begin this episode, let’s settle down into a comfy spot, take a deep breath in, and let it out again and we can get started learning all about fireworks.
Fireworks reportedly originated in 7th century China but primitive firecrackers may date back as far as 200 BC. The legend is that either a Chinese cook or an alchemist, depending on who’s telling the story, accidentally invented gunpowder by spilling saltpeter into a cooking fire which contained charcoal and sulfur. Some versions of the legend claim that the accidental invention was made while searching for an elixir of immortality. Later, about 2,000 years ago, a Chinese monk named Li Tian began producing exploding firecrackers by filling bamboo shoots with gunpowder, to celebrate the new year and scare away mountain men and evil spirits. The loud noise that would have been produced is what they were really looking for, rather than the fantastic displays of light and color that we appreciate now, since it was believed that the loud pop sound was what scared the evil spirits away. They also began finding other uses for gunpowder around this time, like using it to shoot arrows out of hand-carved wooden dragons at invaders.
Explorers, including the crusaders and Marco Polo, began returning to their home countries in Europe with the rocket powders in the 13th century and by the 15th century fireworks were being used across Europe during religious festivals, for entertaining, and for illuminating castles on important occasions. Italians were the first Europeans to manufacture fireworks and they’re responsible for inventing the arial shells in the 1830s that we still use today, as well as figuring out which chemical powders would create specific colors. The first documented use of fireworks in England was in 1486 at King Henry VII’s wedding. Even Shakespeare mentions fireworks in several of his plays.
As Europeans began to settle in the United States, they brought fireworks with them. In fact, even at the first Independence Day celebration fireworks were set off, and the tradition continues strong today.
Nowadays, fireworks are used all over the world to celebrate all manner of special occasions, and sometimes, just to mark the end of the day…In fact, Disney spends around $50 million a year on their firework displays, with about 90,000 pounds or 45 tons of fireworks being purchased between their parks every year. Each of their four theme parks puts on a firework show every night, unless they’re cancelled due to weather, averaging about 230 shows per year each. This tradition started in 1956 in Disneyland. At first they were lit by hand but in the 1960s, an electronic system began to be utilized. And, rather than using gunpowder in their firework displays, Disneyland in California began in 2004 to use compressed air to launch their fireworks. This allows the use of electronic timers to explode the shells, increasing the accuracy in timing so fireworks can now be set to music, as well as reducing the smoke and fumes from gunpowder-powered fireworks. Now, all Disney parks use this system, as do many other professionally run firework displays.
Before we get into the “how” of fireworks, here are a few facts about modern day fireworks:
- China produces around 90% of the world’s fireworks today.
- Thousands of people are injured every year using fireworks. More than 40% of injuries may come from sparklers and seemingly-innocent firecrackers. So, definitely use care, and leave the big ones to the professionals!
- Fireworks aren’t recyclable or particularly good for the environment or for us. They release pollutants into the atmosphere that can have serious health effects on humans and animals. In fact, some of the chemicals used are linked to lung and thyroid problems and birth defects and even though they’re often encased in cardboard, it’s usually too dirty and contaminated with chemicals to recycle. If you set off your own you should soak the leftover pieces in water and then put them in the trash. The good news is that several groups are working on creating more environmentally and health-friendly fireworks.
- The world record for the largest firework display occurred in 2016 in the Philippines, presented by the Iglesia Ni Cristo or “Church of Christ” in English. The display lasted for over an hour and used 810,904 fireworks. The largest single firework however, was set off in Colorado, USA in 2020, with the firework weighing 2,800 pounds and measuring 62 inches.
- Not everyone loves fireworks. Dogs, cats, and birds may all be very scared of them and some humans with PTSD, like veterans, may be sensitive to the bangs that could bring back some traumatizing memories. And, of course, the loud noises and lights might scare babies and small children. This isn’t to say that fireworks should never be used but it’s a good thing to keep in mind if you’re thinking of setting off fireworks or firecrackers but you want to be a good neighbor…maybe warn the people who live around you ahead of time.
Now, let’s talk about how fireworks, well, work! For the purpose of simplicity, we’ll break fireworks down in to three categories, sparklers, firecrackers, and fireworks.
Sparklers are the little handheld sticks that you may see little kids running around with. Deemed generally safe, they use a chemical mixture blended with water to form a slurry that’s molded or dipped onto a rigid stick or wire. Metals such as aluminum, iron, steel, zinc, or magnesium flakes are added to create the sparks. Once lit, they’ll burn all the way down to the end of the chemical mixture, setting off sparks and fire while it gets closer and closer to the holder’s finger.
Firecrackers: for the most part, firecrackers are gunpowder wrapped in paper with a fuse attached. Gunpowder is 75% potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal or sugar, and 10% sulfur. When the fuse is lit, it heats the fuel, which is either the charcoal or sugar. The carbon produced from the fuel mixes with oxygen to produce gasses which form a pressure within the paper wrapping. This expands until it explodes, making a loud bang from the wrapper being blown apart.
Fireworks: The most complicated, fireworks have a lot going on. Like firecrackers, fireworks are essentially a combination of different chemicals packed within a shell and a fuse, which could be made from simple paper or electrically timed wires like Disney uses, that sets off the explosion. Electric fuses are pretty cool because not only do they produce less smoke but they can be controlled from a distance by a computer. After burning for a pre-determined amount of time, the fuses set off the lifting charge, which acts like a rocket, launching the firework into the air at speeds of up to 300 miles or 482 kilometers per hour to heights of 1000 feet or 304 meters. Eventually, the fuse will reach the shell and the chemicals within which cause the explosion in the sky above us. Now, most fireworks have a stick on the end of them to help show which end is up and which is down and which way the firework will fly.
But how do they produce such fancy shapes and beautiful colors? Well, that all comes down to chemistry. The combination of metal salts are what create different colors. For instance, calcium, lithium or strontium make shades of reds and pinks. Sodium compounds burn yellow or orange. Copper or barium salts burn green or blue, and different combinations within a single firework can create special, colorful effects like a pink center with a purple fringe. But how about the shapes and designs? Have you seen a heart shaped firework? Or a smiley face? How does that happen? Well, a firework is made up of groups of round shells, called stars, that are packed with the color chemicals. The different shape of each firework will depend on how the stars are aligned inside since each star will be one of the points of light that we see. Essentially, the shape you see in the sky is the same as you would see inside the packaged shell before it’s fired. So, a heart in the sky may be a bunch of lithium packed stars that have been arranged into the casing in the shape of a heart. Pretty simple right?
Well, yes and no. Though it’s not illegal in many places and instructions on how to make DIY fireworks are readily available with a quick internet search, creating your own fireworks probably isn’t something you want to attempt at home since it can be mighty dangerous. Pyrotechnicians are specially trained and have years of experience making and setting off fireworks. They’re the ones hired for large events, responsible for the planning, rigging, firing, and cleaning up afterwards and they know all about the chemical combinations and how to achieve different effects, and most especially, how to stay safe through it all. So, by all means, let’s all go out and enjoy the firework displays put on (by the professionals) this year and have a great time, hopefully enjoying it even more now that we know how they work and a bit of the history behind them.
That’s it for this episode of Facts to Relax. I hope you’re feeling calm and happy and that you learned something new. If you enjoyed this video, please give it a thumbs up and subscribe to this channel if you’re so inclined. I also have an Instagram page where I post quick cards that give little tidbits of information I learn in making these videos that you may find interesting. I’ll link to that page in the description below in case you want to follow me there too. As always, thank you so much for spending time with me and I hope you come back and color and chill with me again soon. Bye!
❁❁ SOURCES & RESOURCES ❁❁
- Good video on how to safely use fireworks at home and describing some of the different kinds you can buy https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=71&v=wAz7-4nlvMg&feature=emb_logo