Firework Technology

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It’s believed that fireworks were accidentally discovered in China about 2,000 years ago when a cook mixed three ingredients together – charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur – while working in a field kitchen.

Since fireworks were introduced to the United States (sometime in the mid-1600s), fireworks have become big business – last year alone, $190.7 million worth of fireworks were imported from China. And fireworks have long been associated with July Fourth celebrations.

Fireworks are classified into two categories: consumer and display. Consumer fireworks (also called Class C or 1.4G fireworks) are sold to the public and include things like sparklers and bottle rockets. While most U.S. States allow the sale of consumer fireworks, a few – such as my state, New York – forbid the sale of any type of firework. Display fireworks (or Class B or 1.3G fireworks) can only be operated by licensed professionals (pyrotechnicians) and are often detonated with the use of computers.

In the 1980s, a standard fireworks show lasted an hour in length – but nowadays they rarely top twenty minutes. But the fireworks display has become more spectacular, meeting the public’s demand for fast, loud, powerful, gripping entertainment.

Over the years chemists have improved color mixing, making more exact and brighter shades. They’ve found that sodium produces a deep gold, copper generates the color blue, and barium gives off green. As color technology advances, we may soon see shades like hot pink and turquoise in public fireworks displays.

But color mixing isn’t the only technological advancement in recent years – Some aerial fireworks can even burst into shapes, such as hearts, stars and happy faces. In the near future, we may soon see fireworks spelling out words.

Firework choreography has also become an art form in itself, with the fusing and exploding of fireworks now timed with notes of music (I’m guessing it’s safe to assume that Katy Perry’s Firework record will be popular this year).

The intention behind each exploding firework is often carefully thought through – while playing The Star-Spangled Banner, for example, a fireworks display may reveal bright red bursts in the sky at the same exact moment you hear “and the rockets red glare,” according to one expert. But listening to the evolving sounds of the fireworks themselves – a cacophony of pops, bangs, booms – have always been part of the magical, large-scale entertainment experience.

It’s important to remember that fireworks can be extremely dangerous and cause serious injuries or even death. Back in 2000, about 11,000 fireworks-related injuries were treated in United States hospital emergency rooms. According to the National Fire Protection Association, children between the ages of 10-14 have the highest risk for fireworks-related injuries (consider that a sparkler burns at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit – that’s hot enough to melt some types of metal!). During a fireworks-related injury, the eyes, hands, head and face are most vulnerable.

In addition to human injuries and fatalities, fireworks can cause serious property damage. In 2009, about 18,000 reported fires were caused by fireworks (resulting in $38 million in damage). Generally speaking, far more fires are reported in the United States on Independence Day than any other day of the year.

So this holiday weekend, brush up on your fireworks safety and state laws by reading these U.S. government tips, and appreciate the amazing technology behind the fireworks display. Happy July Fourth!  

For more, be sure to catch Secret World of Fireworks this Sunday at 8P et/pt.

Image Credit: Semnoz/ Wikimedia Commons