Fireworks Records Page

Fireworks are like almost everything else have records for the biggest, longest, and the most. Here are some of the “official” records from the Guiness World Book of Records, and some of the “unofficial” records that have yet to be recognized by Guiness.

Guiness World Book of Records

+ The largest firework ever produced was Universe I Part II, exploded for the Lake Toya Festival, Hokkaido, Japan on 15 Jul 1988. The 1,543 pound shell was 54.7 inches in diameter and burst to a diameter of 3,937 feet. (Note: This was not an aerial shell but a shell that was placed on a floating platform and ignited). [Source ]

+ A self-propelled horizontal firework wheel measuring 47 feet 4 inches diameter, built by Florida Pyrotechnic Arts Guild (FPAG), was displayed at the Pyrotechnics Guild International (PGI) Convention in Idaho Falls, Idaho USA on 14 Aug 1992. It functioned for 3 minutes 45 seconds. (Note: This wheel had smaller wheels, lance setpieces, mines, gerbs and Roman candles on it.) [Source ]

+ The longest firecracker display was produced by the Johor Tourism Department, the United Malaysian Youth Movement and Mr. Yap Seng Hock, and took place on 20 Feb 1988 at Pelangi Garden, Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia. The total length of the display was 18,777 feet and consisted of 3,338,777 firecrackers and 1,468 pound of gunpowder. It burned for 9 hours 27 minutes. [Source ]

+ Terry McDonald of Pyromac Ltd, in Jersey, United Kingdom sucessfully established a new world record on Friday 15th August at a little after 10pm, when 39,210 rockets were fired from the beach at St Aubins Bay, St Helier, Jersey, United Kingdom.

The event was officially adjudicated, the rockets having been counted by the Jersey States Treasurer, Mr George Baird, (whose signature appears on the Jersey banknotes), and the event was recorded by the BBC to be broadcast in November (21st ??) on their Record Breakers programme (and probably Children In Need as well). The launch was sponsored by The Royal Bank Of Scotland International, and so all money raised by the public sponsorship of rockets was able to go directly to charity.

40,000 rockets were supported in trays holding just over 1000 each consisting of two layers of chicken wire about 1ft apart (to support the sticks and hold them streight). The top layer was then laced with raw-match, onto which the visco fuses of the Falcon rockets were layed. The completed trays were then connected with quickmatch, and ignited electically at the centre point from one of our ‘Doom Buttons’ situated on the sea wall in front of the cameras about 200m away. The whole rig was put in position in the space of just one hour as the tide went out. This was performed with teams of tractors and trailers carrying the trays of rockets.

The noise at ignition was incredible, as all the rockets had a whistle for the motor, and a burst of red, green or crackling stars.

The whole shoot must have lasted about 15 secs.

The next morning saw a clean-up operation of vast proportions. Terry used teams of people as well as fishing boats and miles of net to try and pick up all the sticks, cases and pink plastic nose cones as they were deposited by the subsequent tides.

Terry / Pyromac is not (yet) on the web and so I’ll publish some pictures someplace one my site when the films are back from the developers. I’ll keep you posted when this is done.

Of the 40,000 rockets launched only 790 stayed in the trays (though most of these had actually burned up, but were discounted as they had not actually flown).

Terry is now opening up the challenge to anyone else in the world to beat this record, and says he will be glad to supply them with trays for the first 40,000 to get them started! He’s already planning bigger things…

It’s been a very busy and exciting couple of pyro-filled weeks. The rockets alone took a total of 240 man-hours to load into the trays! I’ve been very priveleged to be a part of this event, as well as to provide the control systems for the previous day’s 3/4 mile simultaneous launch of flutter-fetti from cannons suspended above the main (and only) dual carriage-way on the island (the biggest ever lauch of this product – what a mess!!) and also the firework display after the rocket shoot.

If you ever get a chanse to visit Terry’s operation in Jersey then do go – his empire and methods of operation and attention to detail are incredible. Wether they’ve been doing pyro for forty years or just starting, eveyone that’s visited has learned a great deal.

For example, where most other companies would send out teams simply kitted out with hard hats, ear defenders, goggles etc Terry’s crew all wear full motorcycle helmets, flash hoods, etc… etc…

39210….. that’s a lot of rockets!

Unofficial World Records

+ The largest fireworks display ever fired in the world was either the celebration in Moscow, Russia after the Great Patriotic War (World War II). The show was made up primarily of anti-aircraft cannons that fired barrages of pyrotechnic illumination devices into the sky. [Source ] Or it was the

+ The longest Niagara Falls effect was performed by Suwako Kojyomatsuri on August 15 1997 at the Suwa-city, Nagano, Japan. It was 3000 meters long). The second longest was done by Kamogawa Natsu-matsuri on August 14 1997 at Kamo-city, Nigata, Japan. It was 2000 meters long. [Source ]

Unofficial US Records

+ The largest aerial shells ever built in the United States were Fat Man I and Fat Man II built by Fireworks by Grucci (New York Pyrotechnics, Inc.), now of Brookhaven, New York, USA. They were each 40.50 inches in diameter, 36″ tall and weighed 720 pounds of which 100 pounds was the burst charge. A test shot of a log replica was fired in Cambridge, New York, USA in February 1976 using 4 pounds of 2F blackpowder from a 2 ton cold-rolled steel mortar that was 10 feet long and had walls 0.75 inch thick. It was estimated the log reached 995 feet in height. [Source ]

Fat Man I was fired in February 1976 in Cambridge, New York, USA but an additional 2 pounds of lift powder was added. It failed to fly out of the gun. For some reason the fuse to the lift charge failed to ignite, however the time fuse to the shell did ignite and the shell functioned in the mortar, destroying it. The resulting crater was about 10 feet deep and a large portion of the mortar landed about 1/4 mile away. [Source ]

Fat Man II was fired in October 22, 1977 in Titusville, Florida, USA. It managed to clear the mortar and rise less than a hundred feet and then burst in a huge fireball. The burst charge was apparently too much and the pattern was

+ he largest aerial shell to be successfully fired was a 36″ aerial shell of shells built by Devon Dickenson od Sacramento, California, USA. [Source ]

+ he largest Superstring of firecrackers ever to be successfully fired was [Source ]

Unofficial Japanese Records

The largest aerial shell successfully fired in Japan was a tama Boquest of Chrysanthemums aerial ball shell. It was just under 40 inches in diameter and weighed 564 pounds. It was fired from a 3 ton mortar that was 13 feet long on October 16, 1980 near Futtsu, Japan and was estimated to have a break of 2,000 feet in diameter [Source ]

 

Pyrotechnic Chemicals

Acetone (2-Propanone) [C3H6O]
Flammable liquid used as a solvent in pyrotechnics (i.e., in mixtures that can’t contain water).  Nitrocellulose can be dissolved in it to create nitrocellulose lacquer, which can be used as an adhesive or a waterproof coating.  Acetone is hard to work with because it evaporates so quickly, thus making the composition cold and causing water to condense.

Hazards:  Extremely flammable.  Evaporates rapidly and creates heavier-than-air vapors which are also flammable.

Aluminum [Al]
Most widely used fuel in modern pyrotechnics; produces a brilliant, bright flame.  The particles come in several of different shapes, such as flakes and grains.

Hazards:  Dust can be harmful if inhaled into the lungs without a proper dust mask, and can be explosive if too much of it gets into a combined space.  Can react with nitrate mixtures and make enough heat to spontaneously combust, especially in wet conditions.

Ammonium Chloride [NH3•HCl]
Used in white smoke compositions.  When burned, it decomposes into HCl and NH3, then quickly re-combines in the air to form a fine smoke of ammonium chloride particles.

Hazards:  The smoke is irritating to the eyes/lungs due to leftover gaseous HCl or NH3.  Ammonium Chloride itself is not toxic.

Ammonium Nitrate [NH4NO3]
Oxidizer used in high explosives (such as ANFO), but not commonly used in fireworks due to its hygroscopicity.

Hazards:  Not very sensitive; known to spontaneously detonate only in large amounts or when mixed with chlorates or metal powders.

Ammonium Perchlorate [NH4ClO4]
Slow-burning, widely-used oxidizer.  Though many rich colors can be made with it, the burn rate is too slow for use in star compositions.   However, it is ideal for use in lances and torches, where slow-burning is an advantage.  Since all of the decomposition products are gases, it is also used in rocket propellants (such as the Solid Rocket Boosters on the Space Shuttle).

Hazards:  Similar to ammonium nitrate, it can detonate by itself, but isn’t very sensitive.  It becomes more dangerous when mixed with chlorates or metal powders. handled with extreme caution using gloves and a mask.

Antimony Trisulfide (Antimony Sulfide, realgar) [Sb2S3]
A fuel sometimes used in glitter and fountain compositions to create the color white.  At one point it was used in flash compositions, but it was poisonous and extremely sensitive to shock and static electricity.  Comes in two forms – “Chinese Needle” and “Dark Pyro”.  The former is used in glitter compositions and white comets/stars.  The latter is used to sharpen the report of salutes and increase the sensitivity of flash powder.

Hazards:  Toxic; gloves and a mask must be worn when handling it.  Becomes friction sensitive when mixed with chlorates or perchlorates.

Barium Carbonate  [BaCO3]
Functions as a green color agent when burned with chlorine present (from the formation of BaCl+), burns white by itself (with oxygen, creating BaO).  Can also be used to reduce acidity in chorate-based color compositions.

Hazards:  Toxic; gloves/mask must be worn at all times when using it.

Barium Chlorate  [BaClO]
Used as an oxidizer in green color compositions.

Hazards:  Toxic; gloves/mask must be worn at all times when using it.  Extremely reactive; must be mixed with compounds that will reduce sensitivity to shock and friction.  Must never be mixed with compounds containing sulfur or phosphorus.
Barium Nitrate [Ba(NO3)2]
Can be used as both a green color agent and an oxidizer.  Functions as a green color agent when burned with chlorine present (from the formation of BaCl+), burns white by itself (with oxygen, creating BaO)

Hazards:  Toxic; gloves/mask must be worn when using it.  Shouldn’t be mixed with metal powders due to possible spontaneous combustion, especially when moist.

Barium Sulfate [BaSO4]
Used as a high-temperature oxidizer in metal-based green color compositions.

Hazards:  Unlike other barium compounds, barium sulfate is not very toxic because of its low solubility in water.

Benzoic Acid [C6H5COOH]
Used to make metallic benzoates.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Bismuth Trioxide [Bi2O3]
Used as a non-toxic alternative to lead tetraoxide to make crackling stars.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Bismuth Subcarbonate [(BiO)2CO3]
Also used as a non-toxic alternative to lead tetraoxide to make crackling stars.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Boric Acid [H3BO3]
Weak acid in a powder form which is added to compositions containing aluminum or magnesium and a nitrate.  Metals react with nitrates to form amides, which can further react with the metal powder to create a highly exothermic reaction which could spontaneouly ignite the compound.  Even a few percent boric acid added to the mixture will neutralize any amides that form.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Cab-O-Sil (fumed silica, colloidal silica) [SiO2]
Used as an anti-caking agent and to prevent hygroscopic chemicals from absorbing water from the air.  Sometimes used in flash powders.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Calcium Carbonate (chalk) [CaCO3]
Used as a color agent in orange star compositions, or as an acid-absorber.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Calcium Sulfate [CaSO4• xH2O, where x = 0, 2, 3, 5]
Calcium sulfate anhydrate (where x = 0) can be used as a high temperature oxidizer in orange color compositions or in strobe compositions.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Charcoal (Carbon) [C]
Charcoal is used very widely in pyrotechnics.  Charcoal is the by-product of the burning of organic substances.  It contains impurities which make is more reactive, and therefore is used more often than pure carbon in fireworks.  It can be made from many types of wood.  Charcoal from soft woods, such as grape vine or willow, is good for fast-burning compositions like black powder, whereas charcoal from hard woods like pine are used to create long-lasting spark effects.  Very fine charcoal is known as air float.  Another type of fine charcoal called lampblack.

Hazards:  Fine charcoal dust can easily be breathed in, so a mask must be work when working with it.

Clay (bentonite, sodium aluminum silicate)
Powder used for plugs and nozzles in fountains, drivers, rockets, and other devices.  Can also be made into a paste if mixed with water.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Confectioners Sugar (sucrose, table sugar) [C12H22O11]
Can be used with an oxidizer such as potassium nitrate to create smoke devices or rocket fuel.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic (well, we all EAT it…)

Copper Acetoarsenite (paris green) [Cu3As2O3Cu(C2H3O2) 2]
The best blue color agent.  It is extremely poisonous, however, and is hardly ever used in modern pyrotechnics.

Hazards:  Extremely toxic; gloves/mask must be worn when using it.

Copper Benzoate [Cu(C6H5COO)2]
Can be used as a fuel in blue color compositions.  Not often used because it is expensive

Hazards:  Toxic; gloves/mask must be worn when using it.

Copper(II) Carbonate [CuCO3]
Light green powder used as a blue color agent.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Copper Chlorate (Hexahydrate) [Cu(ClO3)2•6H2O]
Used as an oxidizer is blue color compositions.

Hazards: Extremely reactive; must be mixed with compounds that will reduce sensitivity to shock and friction.  Must never be mixed with compounds containing sulfur or phosphorus.

Copper(II) Chloride (campfire blue) [CuCl2]
Brownish-yellow compound used as a blue color agent.

Hazards:  Toxic; gloves/mask must be worn when using it.

Copper Chromite [CuCr2O4]
Can be used as a catalyst in rocket propellants.  It is added in small quantities (1-5%) to rocket fuels and whistle compositions to increase the burn rate.

Hazards:  Toxic; gloves/mask must be worn when using it.

Copper(II) Oxide [CuO]
Black powder used as a blue color agent.

Hazards:  Toxic; gloves/mask must be worn when using it.

Copper Oxychloride [3CuO•CuCl2•3.5H2O]
Green powder used as a blue color agent.

Hazards:  Toxic; gloves/mask must be worn when using it.

Copper(II) Sulfate (Pentahydrate) [CuSO4•5H2O]
Anhydrous form is used as a blue color agent.

Hazards:  Toxic; gloves/mask must be worn when using it.

Copper Benzoate [Cu(C6H5COO)2]
Used as a fuel and as a blue color agent.

Hazards:  Toxic; gloves/mask must be worn when using it.

Cryolite (sodium fluoaluminate) [Na3AlF6]
White powder used as a yellow color agent.

Dechlorane [C10Cl12]
Used as a chlorine donor.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Dextrin [C6H10O5]
Commonly used, water-activated pyrotechnic binder used to hold compositions together or as a paste.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Ethanol (Ethyl Alcohol) [CH3CH2OH]
Commonly used as a solvent for compositions containing organic fuels/binders such as shellac and red gum.

Hazards:  Very flammable; burns with a nearly invisible blue flame.  Evaporates quickly, creating heavier-than-air vapors that are also flammable

Ferrotitanium [60/40 ratio of Fe and Ti]
Alloy of iron (ferrum) and titanium, used to create yellow-white sparks in fountains and star compositions.

Hazards:  Flammable, dust mask should be work when handling to avoid inhalation


Gallic Acid
 
[C7H6O5•H2O]
White powder used to create whistles.

Hazards:  Sensitive, may explode when mixed with chlorates

Gum Arabic
Vegetable gum used as a water-soluble binder

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Hexachlorethane (carbon hexachloride) [C2Cl6]
White powder used as a chlorine donor and in smoke compositions

Hazards:  Carcinogenic; gloves/mask must be worn when using it.

Hexamine (hexamethylenetetramine, methenamine) [C6H12N4]
Used as an low reactivity fuel in blue star compositions

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic.

Iron [Fe]
Gray metallic powder used to create yellow branching sparks, mainly in sparklers and fountains.  Iron alloys rich in carbon work best.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic, but it reacts over time with water or air to form useless iron oxides.  Iron must be coated with wax or linseed oil first to protect it before it is used in any pyrotechnic compositions.

Iron(II) Oxide (ferrous oxide) [FeO•Fe2O3 or Fe3O4]
Black powder used as a high-temperature oxidizer in thermite compositions.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic

Iron(III) Oxide (ferric oxide) [FeO•Fe2O3 or Fe3O4]
Red powder used as a catalyst in rocket compositions, as a high-temperate oxidizer in thermite compositions or ignition compositions.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic

Lactose (milk sugar) [C12H22O11•2H2O]
Which powder used in smoke compositions and as a low reactivity fuel in blue color compositions.

Hazards:  Not particularly dangerous or toxic

Lampblack (carbon black) [C]
Extremely fine form of charcoal obtained from the burning of crude oils.  It is used to produce long lasting, finely dispersed orange sparks.

Hazards:  Must be handled with care (and gloves) as to prevent the fine dust from flying everywhere and making a huge mess.  A mask should be worn to prevent inhalation.

Lead Dioxide (lead(IV) oxide) [PbO2]
Used as an oxidizer in friction-sensitive ignitor compositions, such as matches.

Hazards:  Carcinogenic and a neurotoxin; any direct contact with skin should be avoided.   Gloves, repirator, and protective clothing must be worn when using it.

Lead Tetraoxide [Pb3O4]
Red powder most commonly used to make crackling stars, sometimes in high-temperature primes.

Hazards:  Carcinogenic and a neurotoxin; any direct contact with skin should be avoided.   Gloves, repirator, and protective clothing must be worn when using it.

MAGNESIUM [Mg]
Highly reactive and flammable metal used to brighten flames without decreasing color quality.  Also used in flash powder, strobe formulations, and flares.

MAGNESIUM-ALUMINUM (MAGNALIUM) [Mg/Al]
Alloy of magnesium and aluminum, with properties of both metals.  Not quite as reactive as magnesium, and not as hard to ignite as aluminum.  Used primarily in glitter and strobes, and to brighten flames.

NITROCELLULOSE LACQUER [C6H7N3O11]
Flammable liquid binder used for waterproofing fuse.

POLYVINYL CHLORIDE (PVC) [C2H3Cl]
Used primarily as a chlorine donor (color enhancer), sometimes as a  fuel and binder.

PARLON
Chlorinated rubber used primarily as a chlorine donor and sometimes as a binder.

POTASSIUM NITRATE [K]
Potassium compounds are used as oxidizers.  Forms of it include:

POTASSIUM BENZOATE [C6H5·CO·OK]
POTASSIUM CHLORATE [KClO3]
POTASSIUM DICHROMATE [K2Cr2O7]
POTASSIUM NITRATE [KNO3]
POTASSIUM PERCHLORATE [KClO4]
POTASSIUM SULFATE [K2SO4]

RED GUM
Reddish brown powder from an Australian tree used as a binder and fuel.

SODIUM [Na]
Yellow color agent.  Forms of sodium include:

SODIUM BICARBONATE [NaHCO3]
SODIUM NITRATE [NaNO3]

Science of FIREWORKS

Fireworks function by the rapid, highly exothermic chemical reaction (burning) of a fuel with oxygen.  The hot gases generated by this process can emit light by themselves, or transfer the energy to other compounds that emit light.  The heat also serves to further release oxygen from the solid oxidizer, so it can combine with the fuel, ignite, and continue the reaction.  All pyrotechnic compositions contain for main ingredients – a fuel, and oxidizer, color/effect producing chemicals, additives, and binders.  Each of these will be explained more in-depth below.

Oxidizer

The word “burning” describes the oxidation of a fuel in air.  A campfire, for instance, uses oxygen from the air to turn wood (cellulose) into steam (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), among other things.  This reaction releases a fair amount of heat – perfect for warming your hands, roasting marshmallow, or incinerating AOL “trial” CDs.  So why do fireworks need an oxidizer?  Simply because our atmosphere doesn’t provide  the chemicals with enough oxygen (O2) to sustain the rapid rate of burning that fireworks require in order to give off color, shoot into the air, or explode.  Only about 20% of the air we breathe is oxygen, which is only good for slow burning reactions like campfires.  If you throw a log on a campfire, you’ll notice that sometimes it takes hours for it to burn.  So fireworks compositions must include their own oxygen.  But because oxygen is a gas, it must be carried in a solid, powdered form – that is, chemically bound to another chemical.  Though there are hundreds of such compositions, the vast majority of these are useless for pyrotechnics because they require too much heat energy to release the oxygen.  Oxidizers much be compositions that will release their oxygen at low temperatures (hundreds of degrees ranther than thousands).

There are many compounds which make good oxidizers: potassium nitrate (KNO3), strontium nitrate (Sr(NO3)2), barium nitrate (Ba(NO3)2), potassium perchlorate (KClO4), ammonium perchlorate (NH4ClO4), potassium chlorate (KClO3), and barium chlorate (Ba(ClO3)2).

Pyro Universe FAQ

 What are the firework laws in my state?

State fireworks laws usually fall into one of four general categories.  Futhermore, individual states may not allow certain devices for whatever reason.

 What are the firework laws in my town?

Folks, there are tens of thousands of towns in the United States alone.  I know the specific laws for only one – mine.  If you want to find out, contact either your city clerk or fire marshal and ask them for information.  In most cases, towns have a printed information packet stating all local fireworks ordinances, including what can be bought/sold and when.

 Will you send me fireworks or free fireworks samples?

No.  Pyro Universe is not a firework manufacturing, display, or distributing company.  I made this site just to share information about pyrotechnics with other enthusiasts.

 Can I use PVC pipe for aerial shells?

No. PVC is an incredibly brittle material. If, for some reason, a shell fails to leave the tube (loaded improperly, gets stuck, etc.) the burst charge will shatter the tube into shrapnel. This goes with any size shell. If HDPE is used, however, a shell malfunction would only shred the tube into long, harmless plastic strips.

 I can’t find HDPE pipe!  Where can I get it?

Most people seem to have trouble finding it because it’s heavy duty and isn’t sold in most hardware or plumbing stores.  Try asking around in your area.  The stuff you want is type DR-11, with an exact inside diameter of 1 7/8 inches (this can vary by a few hundredths of an inch and still be ok).

 Can I use metal pipe for launching shells?

Yes.  Metal pipes are mainly used to launch very large shells, i.e., around 12″ and up.  They’re not used very often anymore for smaller shells simply because of their weight.  If you use metal pipe for your shells, make sure it’s thick enough (at least 1/8 of an inch).

Can I use “Pyrodex” for making black match?

For some reason, Pyrodex (a brand of smokeless gunpowder) doesn’t work for making fuse.  You’ll need to use “Goex” brand.

 I’m trying to find pipe to use for launching shells.  How big should it be?

The inside diameter is the most important part.  Consumer shells have a diameter of 1.75″, so the mortar needs to be only slightly bigger – about 1 7/8″.  This allows the shell to move up and down the tube, but keeps too much of the lift charge gases from escaping.  If you were to use a pipe with a 2″ I.D., the lift gases would escape around the edges of the shell, sending it to a dangerously low altitude.

 Help!  The only pipe I can find for my shells has an inside diameter of 2″.  What should I do?

A somewhat effective method I have found is to slightly increase the diameter of the shell itself.  Unwrap the fuse of the shell, and take it out of the string loop at the top.  Gently bend it back so it’s out of your way.  Get a roll of duct tape, and rip off several 6″ long strips.  Tear each of these strips in half, lengthwise.  Now start wrapping these around the middle of the ball of the shell, keeping track of how many you put on.  Periodically insert the shell into the tube to make sure it still fits – stop adding tape when it just barely goes in.  Put the same number of tape strips on each shell you plan to launch from a 2″ tube.

 Why won’t you update more often?

Unfortunately, maintaining Pyro Universe is not my full-time job.  It’s my personal hobby; something that I do whenever I have free time.

 Where can I buy fireworks online?

There are hundreds of firework companies that maintain websites that allow you to view price lists and order their products online.  Of course, I haven’t had the opportunity to purchase from each and every one of these dealers, so there’s no way I would know who has the best products and the best prices.  If you’re looking for a place to buy, I would recommend checking out the companies that have banners on this site, because their paid advertisements help fund the costs of running Pyro Universe.

Pyrotechnic Glossary

1.1G (UN0333) – DOT classification for explosives that pose a mass detonation hazard

1.2G (UN0334) – DOT classification for explosives that pose a projectile hazard

1.3G (UN0335) – DOT classification for explosives that pose a flaming projectile hazard (display fireworks)

1.4G (UN0336) – DOT classification for explosives that pose a limited hazard (consumer fireworks)

1.4S (UN0337) – DOT classification for explosives that pose only a limited or small hazard, such as fuse.

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) – plastic pipe used in plumbing.  ABS should NEVER be used for mortars since it can shatter into razor-sharp pieces

Aerial Bomb – old term for an aerial shell

Aerial Firework – a device that functions in the air, such as a shell, roman candle, rocket, or repeater

Aerial shell – spherical or cylindrical-shaped firework propelled into the air from a mortar, where it bursts and ignites the contents inside.  The most common and well-known type of firework.

Air Launching – a method of launching aerial shells that uses compressed air rather than a black powder lift charge.  Shells are placed into a rotating turret that rotates each tube into a firing position over an air valve.  The resulting blast of air propels the shell into the sky.  Timed computer chips built in to the shell will trigger the burst charge at the correct altitude.  

Alloy – a combination of two metals that shares some of the characteristics of each.  Magnalium (magnesium/aluminum), for example, is not as reactive as magnesium and not as hard to ignite as aluminum

American Pyrotechnics Association (APA) – trade association for the fireworks industry.

Anion – ion with a negative charge

Ash Can – another name for a silver salute.

Assortment – a variety of fireworks sold in a box.  Comes in all different sizes, and usually includes aerial repeaters, fountains, spinners, rockets, and firecrackers.

Atomic Pattern – a shell burst consisting of three circles on three different planes, which resembles the orbits of electrons around a nucleus

Bag Mine – a type of mine lacking a strong casing; consists of lift charge and stars within a sealed plastic bag

Bare Match – black match without any sort of covering or protection

Barge – anchored, flat water vessel from which fireworks are launched

Barrage – rapid-fire repetition of an aerial effect, such as roman candles

BATFE – Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives.  Federal agency which regulates the licensing, importation, manufacture, distribution, and storage and storage of 1.3G display fireworks.

Battery – any group of fireworks fused together as one unit so that they will ignite all at once or in a short period of time, such as a missile battery or a roman candle battery.  

Battle in the Clouds – a shell that creates several loud reports after bursting

Bees – see Hummer

Binder – substance used to hold certain pyrotechnic compositions together, such as stars  

Black Body Radiation – when light is given off by a normally dark object.  For example, the coals of a burning fire emit orange light, caused by the burning wood charcoal.

Black Match – a common type of fuse that consists of black powder impregnated in cotton string.  It burns at about one inch per second, but can burn up to 100 feet per second if encased in a narrow paper tube (quick match)  

Black Powder (gunpowder) – most common material used in fireworks; invented by the Chinese around a millennium ago.  It is a low explosive consisting of potassium nitrate (KNO3), sulfur (S), and charcoal (mostly atomic carbon).  Used to make sound, propel objects, make fuse, and used in other combinations to make a variety of different effects.

Black Shell (or blind shell) – a shell whose time fuse fails to ignite the bursting charge and falls back to earth without bursting.  Sometimes the shell will be ignited by the impact of its landing, particularly if it has shock-sensitive chlorate mixtures inside.  It could also be ignited by leftover sparks on the time fuse being thrust into the burst charge upon landing.

“Blown Blind” – when stars fail to ignite  

Bombette – a very small shell that is used in roman candles and even in large shells.

Bottle Rocket – a small rocket about the size of a standard firecracker, attached to a thin, 12″ long stick for stabilization.  Flies up (sometimes with a whistle) and ends in a firecracker-like report

Bottom-Fused – a method of shell construction where the time fuse enters the shell at the bottom and is ignited by the lift charge.  Nearly all spherical shells, as well as most small cylindrical shells, are bottom fused.  

Bottom Shot – a multi-break shell whose last shot is a salute

Bounce – a black powder charge at the end of a fountain that creates a small explosion at the end of the device’s performance

British Pyrotechnics Association (BPA) – trade association for the British fireworks industry

Branching – sparks that split up into smaller sparks, which looks similar to a branch

Break – a compartment of a shell containing effects.  Multi-break shells contain many of these compartments which result in several bursts in the sky.

Brick – many bundled packs of firecrackers which resembles a red brick  

Brocade – a spider-like shell burst pattern. Generally has silver tail effect, and is brighter than willow or tiger tail-style bursts. 

Burning – an exothermic oxidation/reduction reaction.  Fireworks typically use oxygen-rich salts such as perchlorates, chlorates, or nitrates to rapidly oxidize fuels such as metals, gums, sulfur, or charcoal.

Burst – the release of effects into the air by an aerial device  

Burst Charge – a composition placed inside of aerial shells which explodes at the shell’s maximum altitude, which bursts apart the casing and ignites/propels the effects all over the sky.  Commonly made of black powder (sometimes with whistle mix), but can also be made with potassium chlorate.

Cake – a repeating aerial firework consisting of many shots, named after its usual short, cake-like appearance.  Cakes consist of one fuse attached to several tubes (sometimes hundreds) which fire in sequence, launching a variety effects into the air, including comets, crossettes, whistles, reports, mines, spinners, and flying fish.

Caliber – refers to the inside diameter of a mortar or the size of a shell

Candle – short term for roman candle

Case – a tube containing pyrotechnic composition.  Also refers to boxes containing one type of firework, which are shipped to the US from China and sold at the wholesale level to retailers.

Cation – an ion with a positive charge

Celebration Roll – a chain of hundreds or thousands of firecrackers (designed to be hung up) traditionally used by the Chinese during holidays 

Charging – the process of filling a tube with pyrotechnic composition and/or effects (such as stars)

Cherry Bomb – a old cherry-sized salute filled with explosive flash powder and covered in a red sawdust/glue coating.  Banned in the US since 1966.

Chlorine Donor – a chlorine-rich compound such as PVC (polyvinylchloride) or Parlon.  When combined with a metal within a pyrotechnic flame, certain colors can be produced.

Choke – narrow portion of a fountian/rocket tube, usually made out of clay, that is used to increase internal pressure, which therefore increases the velocity of the products being ejected to create thrust

Chrysanthemum – a dense, spherical burst of stars that retains its shape before fading.  This is the most well-known type of firework shell break.

Class B – obsolete DOT classification for Display Fireworks

Class C – obsolete DOT classification for Consumer Fireworks

Comet – basically a large star that emits thick showers of bright sparks on the way up

Composition – a mixture of pyrotechnic chemicals which contains a fuel, an oxidizer, and various other chemicals to produce colors and effects.

Consumer Fireworks – a cone-shaped fountain

Consumer Fireworks – fireworks for public use, also known by the DOT classification 1.4G or UN0336.  Formerly known as “Class C” or “Common” fireworks.  Consumer fireworks must be tested approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).  Among other regulations, consumer fireworks cannot be sensitive to friction or shock, and can only contain 500 grams of pyrotechnic composition and no more than 130 milligrams of flash powder in aerial effects.

Continuity test – a way for pyrotechnicians to test whether an electrical circuit works.  It involves sending a small current through the igniters to see if the circuit is complete without actually igniting them.

Convolute (Parallel) Tube– paper firework tube wound in a parallel fashion.  Stronger than spiral wound tubes, but more expensive to produce. 

Covalent Bond – an chemical bond between two non-metallic elements that share electrons.

CPSC – Consumer Product Safety Commission.  Federal agency which regulates Consumer (1.4g) fireworks.  

Cracker – short term for firecracker

Crackle – clusters of small, sharp reports

Crossette – a comet that contains an internal burst charge of flash/black powder that causes it to burst into several fragments

Crossmatch – technique used to ignite time fuse in shells.  A piece of black match is threaded through a hole in the time fuse, so fire is transferred from the black match to the black powder core of the time fuse.  

Cut Stars – cubical stars cut from damp pyrotechnic composition with a knife

Dahlia – a burst pattern similar to a peony, but with larger and fewer stars.

Dark Fire (dark prime) – a composition that emits almost no light as it burns, which can be applied between different color layers of stars.  The star will burn one color, “burn out”, then unexpectedly ignite again in a different color.

Daylight Shell – a shell designed to be fired during the day, which contains effects such as reports, smoke, and whistles

Delay – a pyrotechnic composition that is used for timing between the ignition of firework elements, such as in a roman candle

Department of Transportation (DOT) – United States agency that regulates the classification and transportation of fireworks and other explosives.  The DOT created the 1.4G classification for consumer fireworks.

Decomposition – a chemical reaction in which a compound or mixture is converted into a more stable form, usually accompanied by the production of heat

Deflagration – a rapid decomposition reaction which is accompanied by the evolution of light, heat, and large volumes of heated gas.  The rapidly expanding gas produces shock waves in the air, which humans perceive as an explosion.  Fireworks and other low explosives function by deflagration.

Detonation – an exothermic chemical reaction in which the explosive decomposition of a substance forms an energy wave that propagates through the substance at supersonic speeds.  High explosives such as TNT and dynamite detonate; fireworks do not 

Detonator – a small explosive used to set off high explosives.  Not to be confused with firework electric igniters.

Display Fireworks – fireworks for professional use, also known by the DOT classification 1.3G or UN0335.  Formerly known as “Class B” fireworks

Dragon Eggs – clusters of crackling sparks in the air

Drivers – thrust-producing fountains used to propel devices such as rats and wheels

Dross – molten waste product of combustion

Dud – a firework that fails to ignite  

Electrical ignition – the ignition of a fireworks display by electrical means

Electric Igniter (electric matches) – device used for the electrical ignition of fireworks.  Consists of two lead wires connected to each other by a small filament of nickel-chromium (nichrome) wire coated with pyrogen.  When current passes through the igniter, the nichrome filament heats up and ignites the pyrogen, which in turn lights the fuse.  Often incorrectly called Squibs, which are electrical caps the detonate in order to set off high explosives.    

Exothermic – a chemical reaction in which the total energy of the products is less than the total energy of the reactants.  In other words, the system loses energy, which is given off in the form of heat and light.  Firework reactions are exothermic.

Explosive – a substance that has the potential to undergo rapid chemical decomposition, producing light, heat, and large volumes of gas.

Fallout – debris such as scraps of cardboard, plastic, wood from rocket fins/sticks, ash, and leftover tubes that rain down over the ground after the performance of an aerial firework.  Fallout can be a hazard to people and dry materials since the pieces are usually still hot or smoldering.  

Fallout zone – a large, clear area where fallout or dud shells are expected to fall.  Must be clear of any firing personnel, spectators, animals, buildings, dry grass, gasoline canisters, or any other flammable materials. 

Finale – the last portion of a firework display.  During a finale, the largest, loudest, and most exotic fireworks are ignited in huge quantities and in a short amount of time, creating an intense and beautiful display

Fish – a type of aerial effect that looks like a swarm of glowing objects flying around randomly.  The effect is created using small chunks of fast-burning fuse that actually propel themselves through the air when lit.

Firecracker – a small rolled paper tube containing flash powder, typically braided by their fuses into long strings.  When the fuse is lit, the flame travels to the inside of the firecracker and ignites the powder, causing it to explode.  In the United States, firecrackers can only contain 50 mg of flash powder.

Firework – a device that functions by combustion to create visible and audible effects for the purpose of entertainment.  In the United States, fireworks are divided into two groups: those that can be bought by the public (Consumer Fireworks) and those that can only be used by professionals (Display/Professional Fireworks)

Firing current – the amount of current required to ignite an electrical igniter

Flare – a long tube containing a pyrotechnic composition which burns slowly with a bright, colored flame.  Used mainly to warn motorists of a roadway obstruction or broken down car.  Also used to ignite fireworks.

Flash Powder – an energetic explosive mixture consisting of an oxidizer (usually potassium perchlorate) and a finely powdered metallic fuel (usually aluminum), used to create firecrackers and reports for shells.  Flash powder can be set off by both friction and static, and is very hazardous to manufacture.

Flitter – a type of tail effect consisting of bright flashes of light left behind by a star

Flowerpot – when a shell explodes prematurely in the mortar, spraying the effects into the air like a mine

Fountain – firework that produces upward showers of sparks.  Also called gerbs  

Fuel – ingredient in pyrotechnic compositions that burns extremely rapidly in the presence of an oxidizer.  Common fuels are red gum, sulfur, aluminum, and charcoal

Fuse – device used to transfer fire to a firework, or different parts of a firework

Fusee – see Flare

Gabe Mort (italian: “dead head”) – a large sack of flash powder typically suspended from a gallows-type frame at the height of a man’s head; explodes to create a deafening blast and earth-shaking concussion.

Garden Firework – in the U.K., a small consumer firework designed to be used in small, confined outdoor areas.

Girandola – a spinning horizontal wheel that lifts off and flies up into the sky, where it usually ends with a report or burst of stars and effects.

Gerb – see fountain

Glitter – a tail effect consisting of bright flashes of light and small explosive bursts 

Go-getter – a self-propelled star that flies around randomly in the air.

Greek Fire – an ancient, long-burning sticky composition once used in combat.  It was put in huge pots with a burning cloth (like a Molotov cocktail) and launched from catapults at enemies. 

Green Man – nickname for an 1600s pyrotechnician who would wear green leaves and mud to both protect himself from sparks and hide himself from the crowd while igniting fireworks.  Also the symbol of the Pyrotechnics Guild International

Green Mix (green powder) – essentially a raw mixture of black powder ingredients that haven’t been properly combined with heat to create real black powder.  Green powder is greenish, oily mixture that can burn at a variety of speeds (even that of real black powder), depending on how intimately the ingredients are mixed.  Also called polverone or pulverone

Ground Firework – a consumer firework that functions at ground level, such as fountains, novelties, snaps, snakes, sparklers, and smoke items

Gun – term for mortar

Gunpowder – see Black Powder

Hangfire – when a fuse unexpectedly begins burning at an extremely slow rate (or appears to go out).  Hangfires can last anywhere from a few seconds to around half an hour, and the fuse can suddenly resume burning at its normal rate at any time.

HDPE – High Density Polyethylene: strong plastic pipe commonly used for mortars

Helicopter – a spinner with wings that flies into the air.  Properly called a tourbillion  

High explosive – an an extremely powerful explosive capable of detonating, such as TNT or dynamite.  High explosives are not used in the fireworks industry.

Hummer – a small tube filled with pyrotechnic composition and plugged at both ends, with an angles hole in the side.  Upon ignition, the device spins around very rapidly.  At one point during each revolution, the hole (which is producing the sound) is pointed towards the observer, who perceives it as a “humming” sound.

Hygroscopic – the property of a chemical composition that causes it to absorb and retain moisture from the air, often dissolving itself in a wet, useless mess.

Igniter – short term for Electric Igniter

Illegal Explosives – any salute that contains more than 50 mg of flash powder, such as M-80s, Cherry Bombs, and Silver Salutes.  They are not fireworks.  Illegal explosives are extremely dangerous, and have caused many injuries.

Ion – an atom with a larger/smaller than normal number of electrons, resulting in an overall negative or positive charge, respectively

Ionic Bond – an chemical bond between a metallic and a non-metallic element in which electrons are transferred from the metal to the nonmetal 

Jeweled rats – rats that carry effects on the outside, such as stars  

Jumping Jacks – small tubes fused together in packs, which look identical to firecrackers.  When lit, they spin around on the ground with red and green flames.

Kraft paper – brown paper commonly used in fireworks construction for things such as tubes and quick match pipe

Ladyfinger – tiny firecrackers

Lance – a small tube of pyrotechnic composition that burns with a steady, colorful, flare-like flame for about one minute.  Lances are attached to frameworks in patterns and fused together to create set pieces

Lancework – see Set Piece

Leader – the fuse that transfers fire from the day fuse/electrical igniter/flare to the lift charge of the shell.

Lift Charge – charge beneath a shell (usually attached to the bottom of it) consisting of black powder used to propel the device into the sky

M-80 – a small, powerful explosive created by the military (supposedly that’s what the M is for) for use as a grenade/gunfire simulator, and later sold as a large firecracker.  Once very popular in the U.S., but was banned by the CPSC as part of the Child Protection Act in 1966 due to the thousands of serious injuries they caused.  Often classified as a “firework”, especially by the anti-fireworks media, even though it is NOT a firework.

Magnalium – a mixture of aluminum and magnesium; the most common alloy used in fireworks.  Not as reactive as magnesium, and not as hard to ignite as aluminum

Maroon – British term for a salute 

Matching – the process of connecting multiple fireworks or portions of fireworks with quick match

Mine (star mine) – a firework similar to a shell that explodes in a mortar, igniting effects such as stars and launching them in a fan-shaped pattern into the air.  Not to be confused with military land mines.

Misfire – whenever the fuse of a shell burns into the device, but it fails to fire – the potentially “live” shell is left in the mortar.  It could be due to a hangfire.

Missile – a type of rocket that uses fins rather than a stick for guidance.

Mortar – tube from which aerial fireworks such as shells and mines are ejected.  Can be made from cardboard, high density polyethylene, or fiberglass

Mortar Rack – a wooden or metal frame that contains many mortars 

Multi-break – shell with numerous compartments, each one bursting separately

Muzzle break – when a shell bursts immediately after leaving the mortar, scattering its effects all over the ground

Nosing paper – thin paper wrapped around and extending off of the nozzle of a pyrotechnic device, used to hold the fuse in place and prevent sparks from prematurely igniting the device.

Novelty – a small firework shaped like a animal, vehicle, or structure.  Novelties emit small sprays of sparks, crackle, and whistle, and often move around on little wheels.

Orange Book – nickname for the booklet titled ATF – Explosives Law and Regulations

Palm tree – a comet shell that burns with a thick tail of sparks on the way up, then breaks several spreading “branches” of sparks

Parallel burning – sequence where a piece of burning material ignites the piece next to it, which in turn ignites the piece next to that (such as fuse)

Parallel matching – ignition sequence where one fuse is connected to and simultaneously ignites multiple pyrotechnics devices (such as shells and set pieces)

Pattern shell – shell that breaks in a perfect spherical pattern

Pearl – single color star, launched from the ground

Peony – loosely symmetrical break of stars without trails that fly outward and then begin to droop downward

PGI – Pyrotechnics Guild International

Pigeon – device that consists of many rats, designed to fly back and forth, and even spin  

Pinwheel – see Wheel

Pipe – loose paper tubing fitted over black match to make quick match

Portfires – see Flare  

Prime – a composition such as black powder that is relatively easy to ignite that is mixed with water and a binder to form a slurry, then applied onto fuse or stars composed of something that is more difficult to ignite. 

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – plastic pipe that should NEVER be used for mortars since it can shatter into razor sharp pieces.  Basically the same as ABS  

Pulverone – see Green Mix

Pumped stars – stars produced by compressing star composition out of a cylindrical tube like a syringe, and cutting them off at a specific length  

Punk – a stick of compressed sawdust that burns extremely slow, used for igniting consumer fireworks 

Pyro – nickname for a fireworks enthusiast 

Pyrotechnician – someone who builds or shoots fireworks

Quick match – extremely rapidly burning fuse used to ignite multiple fireworks at virtually the same instant  

Rack – a wooden frame used  to hold mortars, or a device used for launching rockets

Ramming Rod – a rod made of non-sparking material (wood, brass, or aluminum) used to compress pyrotechnic compositions within a tube, for example, to make fountains

Rat – rocket constrained to fly along a line; often emitting sparks and effects

Repeater – firework which fires multiple aerial effects into the sky

Report – explosion  

Rising Effect – things such as whistles, stars, crackles, etc. that are released by a shell during its ascent

Rocket – a firework that is propelled by an rocket engine into the air, where it releases its effects.  Rockets are almost never used anymore in public fireworks displays.

Roman candle – tube-shaped device that fires a series of stars into the air

Round star – spherical stars most commonly used in fireworks.  Round stars are created by putting a type of small “core”, such as lead bird shot or pasta, inside of a bowl and adding star composition and a solvent mixture while the bowl is swirled around.  The star composition accumulates on the cores like snow does when you roll a snowball.

Saltpeter – an old term for potassium nitrate (KNO3), a common oxidizer used in fireworks

Salute –loud report without stars or colors

Safe and Sane – consumer fireworks that do not explode or contain aerial effects.  Includes fountains, novelties, smoke devices, sparklers, and snaps.

Safety cap – paper cap placed over bare end of quick match fuse to prevent premature ignition

Safety fuse – see visco fuse

Series circuit – the most effective way of connecting electrical igniters.  They are arranged in a series (one after another), which makes them more reliable and easier to test for continuity.

Series matching – ignition sequence where devices are fused to ignite one after another, like a chain of dominos  

Set Piece – a large number of lances mounted on a frame in a pattern (shapes, letters) and fused together for instantaneous ignition

Shell – short term for Aerial Shell

Shell of Shells – a large shell that contains smaller shells as well as stars, and upon bursting ignite the smaller shells and create secondary bursts 

Short circuit – ignition failure caused when an electrical circuit is accidentally completed in the wrong place, such as bare wires, shunting the electricity away from the igniter

Shot – refers to the number of effects in a fireworks device, such as as 10-shot roman candle or a 25-shot aerial repeater.

Side spit – sparks and flame that shoot out from a fuse as it burns

Silver Salute – an illegal explosive similar to an M-80 (but slightly longer) with a silver tube.

Smoke – a dispersion of fine solid particles in air, typically in the 10-5-10-9 meter range.  Smokes are typically produced by the incomplete burning of an organic substance (black carbon smoke) or the vaporization of a volatile ingredient which condenses in air.

Smoke Item – a firework that generates smoke as a primary effect, including smoke balls and smoke canisters.  

Snake – a small black pellet that, when lit, burns slowly to produce a long column of brittle ash that resembles a snake coming out of the ground.

Spark – a tiny, light-emitting particle ejected from a burning composition

Sparkler – a wire coated in a pyrotechnic composition that gives off sparks while burning.  Though they seem harmless and are considered “safe”, they cause more injuries than any other firework

Spindle – a spike-shaped piece of metal used for forming the cone-shaped combustion chamber inside of a rocket.  The increased surface area provides maximum thrust  

Spiral-wound tube – a type of tube created by winding multiple strips of thin paper at an angle (like a toilet paper tube)

Star – small pellet that emits light and sparks as it burns

Star gun – small roman candle-like device used for testing stars

Star pump – syringe-like container through which star composition is pushed out of and cut into individual stars

Sticky match  – quick match type fuse consisting of a trail of black power between two pieces of tape stuck against each other

Strobe – bright stars that each flash repeatedly.  Also refers to a consumer fireworks device that emits a series of extremely bright flashes.

Time fuse – thick, slow burning fused used for time delays in aerial shells

Titanium report – loud explosion in the air with white sparks  

Top-fused – a method of shell construction where the time fuse enters the shell at the top and is ignited by the leader fuse

Tourbillion – see helicopter  

Volley – an intense barrage of shells or rockets

Visco – a slow-burning fuse (usually green) used to make fireworks.  

Waterfall – a long series of fountains suspended upside-down, usually from a bridge, that when ignited produce long-lasting white/blue sparks that resemble a waterfall.

Wheel – device that spins rapidly using drivers, emitting sparks, whistles, and other effects

Whirlwind – tube that spins in the air giving off showers of sparks

Whistle – high-pitched shriek caused by air rushing through a partly hollow tube  

Whistle Mix – a composition that uses potassium/sodium benzoate as a fuel.  Such a composition exhibits “vibrational burning”, which causes the characteristic whistling sound.  Whistle mix can be used for whistling devices (such as Piccolo Petes or shell inserts), or as part of the burst charge in small shells.

Willow – falling trails of sparks

History of Fireworks & Gunpowder

The First Firecrackers

The history of fireworks goes back thousands of years to China during the Han dynasty (~200 B.C.), even long before gunpowder was invented.  It is believed that the first “firecrackers” were likely chunks of green bamboo, which someone may have thrown onto a fire when dry fuel ran short.  The rods sizzled and blackened, and after a while, unexpectedly exploded.  Bamboo grows so fast that pockets of air and sap get trapped inside of the plant’s segments.  When heated, the air inside of the hollow reeds expands, and eventually bursts through the side with a long bam!

The strange sound, which had never been heard before, frightened people and animals terribly.  The Chinese figured that if it scared living creatures so much, it would probably scare away spirits – particularly an evil spirit called Nian, who they believed to eat crops and people.  After that, it became customary for them to throw green bamboo onto a fire during the Lunar New Year in order to scare Nian and other spirits far way, thus ensuring happiness and prosperity to their people for the remainder of the year.  Soon, the Chinese were using bursting bamboo for other special occasions, such as weddings, coronations, and births.  The “bursting bamboo”, or pao chuk as the Chinese called it, continued to be used for the next thousand or so years. 

Discovery of Gunpowder

Most historians believe that gunpowder was first discovered sometime during the Sui and Tang dynasties (~600-900 A.D.) in China.  It was most likely discovered accidentally by alchemists who were experimenting with sulfurous mixtures in an attempt to create an elixir of life.  During this period of chemical discovery and experimentation, the alchemists kept records of certain poisonous and dangerous compositions that should never be mixed – including one particular mixture consisting of sulfur, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), honey, and arsenic disulfide.  The texts make reference to such a mixture igniting accidentally while being cooked over a fire, resulting in a large, bright, hot flame that burned the hands and faces of the alchemists tending to it, and even burnt down the shack there were cooking it in!  Despite the warnings, some alchemists were intrigued by the mixture, and continued experimenting with it to try to find ways to make it more powerful.  Their crude mixtures weren’t as powerful as modern gunpowder because it didn’t contain as much potassium nitrate, but nevertheless burned very hot and bright.  It was named huo yao, or the “fire chemical”.  It was soon discovered out that if the “fire chemical” was put inside of bamboo tubes and thrown in the fire to be ignited, the gases produced by the burning powder would blast the tube apart with a much louder and more powerful bang than just green bamboo.  The firecracker was born.  

Over time, chemists discovered that the key to the vigorous burning of gunpowder was the fact that saltpeter was rich in oxygen, which it released as it burned.  They soon figured out how adding more saltpeter to the mixture made it burn faster, thus making it a more powerful explosive and louder when used in firecrackers.  The Chinese were well aware of the killing power of these explosive devices, and by the 10th century, began using them for military purposes.  The Chinese used their gunpowder to create a variety of explosives, including bombs and “fire arrows” – bamboo firecrackers attached to regular arrows and shot at the enemy.  The original idea behind the Chinese bombs was to scare the enemy into fleeing by creating terrifying, earth-rattling explosions and lightning-like flashes.  Eventually the aim shifted from scaring the enemy to simply blowing them up.   Around the 11th century, the proportion of saltpeter in gunpowder was raised to about 75% of the total mixture, along with about 5% charcoal and 10% sulfur (that same formula is still used today, nearly 1000 years later!).

Soon after that, firecrackers began to change.  Rather than using bulky bamboo stems, firecracker makers began filling stiff paper tubes with gunpowder and inserting fuses made from tissue paper with a trail of gunpowder inside.  A variation of a firecracker, called a ground rat, was created around 1200 A.D.  It consisted of a paper firecracker that was open on one end.  Instead of exploding, the burning gas inside shot out of the opening and propelled the rat randomly around the ground.  Rats were quickly adapted for use by the Chinese military because of their psychological effect on the enemy – scaring soldiers and causing horses to go wild.  Occasionally the rats would fly into the air momentarily, which gave the military designers the idea of putting guidance fins on the rats to straighten their flight path.  This led to the creation of the first rockets.  Civilian firework makers took the military’s rocket design and modified it to include an explosive charge, which were then fired into the air – marking the first use of aerial fireworks.

Warfare

Around the 12th century, it was discovered that the explosion of gunpowder could be used to propel objects out of the end of a tube.  The first cannons made by the Chinese were constructed from bamboo tubes!  However, bamboo was often too weak to contain an explosion, so crude cannons began to be fashioned out of metal tubes.  The military use of gunpowder slowly began to spread across Asia and into the Middle East, and during the 1200s, cannons and rockets were used extensively in the Mongol Conquests.

During the same time period – about the middle of the 13th century – the news of gunpowder traveled across the world to Europe via Dominican and Franciscan friars.  One of these friars actually brought back some Chinese firecrackers and gave them to Roger Bacon, a Franciscan monk and professor at Oxford University in England. Bacon became one of the first Europeans to study gunpowder and write about it.  He knew that saltpeter was the driving force behind the terrifying noise of firecrackers, and discovered a way of purifying the natural mineral out of the earth to make more powerful gunpowder.  He realized the potential of this substance to revolutionize warfare and cause many deaths, so he wrote in findings code.    

Eventually, however, efforts by other scientists to improve gun powder (as well as the decoding of Bacon’s formulas) led to a warfare revolution in Europe.  People created bigger, stronger, more powerful cannons that were capable of propelling large iron balls to far-off targets.  It was then that medieval warfare came to an end – because of gunpowder, metal armor could be punctured by bullets, and the once seemingly-impenetrable walls of castles could easily be disintegrated by cannon balls.  Soon after, cannon balls were made hollow so that they could be filled with gunpowder and a fuse.  If aimed correctly, these flying bombs would explode right before or near the time of impact with the target, which proved very effective in blasting apart walls and showering the enemy with metal shards (shrapnel).

In order to compete with and defeat other armies, it became essential that each and every kingdom in Europe be equipped with artillery divisions.  To supply the amount of gunpowder needed by these armies, factories known as “powderworks” were built in order to grind and mix gunpowder.  These facilities typically used the power of mules or running water to turn heavy circular stones in order to crush the power and achieve a homogenous mixture.  Not surprisingly, these places would occasionally explode due to a friction-generated spark on the grinding wheel, which often resulted in many fatalities.  Armies would often celebrate each victory with thundering booms and bright flashes from their weapons.  Rather than being aimed for ground targets, cannons and rockets were pointed towards the sky to make aerial bursts.

During 1400-1600, advances in metallurgy allowed for the creation of more advanced cannons, as well smaller gunpowder weapons such as muskets.  Though the weapons were inaccurate, unreliable, and no where near as powerful as modern firearms, they were much more advanced than bows, arrows and catapults.  Firearms technology in Europe eventually surpassed that of China.

Development of Fireworks

Meanwhile, the Italians had been fascinated with fireworks ever since the explorer Marco Polo brought back firecrackers from the Orient in 1292.  During the Renaissance in Europe (1400-1500), the Italians began to develop fireworks into a true art form.  Since this was a period of artistic creativity and expression, many new fireworks were created for the first time.  Military rockets could be modified by adding powered metals and charcoal in order to create bursts of gold and silver sparks in the sky.  The Italians were able to develop aerial shells – canisters of of explosive composition that were launched into the sky and exploded at the maximum altitude (the Chinese also developed shells that were spherical in shape).  However, the most spectacular firework displays were still those made at ground level.  Firework makers discovered how a special slower-burning gunpowder mix could be put in an open-ended tube, which would give off sparks when lit.  The dense showers of bright sparks resembled water spewing from a fountain, so the new pyrotechnic device was named accordingly.  If rocket engines were attached to a wooden wheel framework, it would spin around rapidly and give off sparks in a circular pattern.  Sculptors would carve giant, detailed models of castles or palaces, which would be adorned with fountains, wheels, and torches.  These “temples”, as they were called, were a beautiful and crowd-pleasing sight when ignited.  Such displays became in high demand throughout Europe.  The idea of controlled fire was fascinating to all, and kings saw no better way to show their wealth and power then by having fireworks at their religious festivals, weddings, and coronation ceremonies.

These firework displays grew more and more elaborate over the years, employing the work of carpenters, metalworkers, masons, and painters to help construct the temples.  Firemasters learned that the effects of fireworks could be greatly enhanced by setting them on small floats in water, where more light and noise would be reflected back towards the audience.  Starting in the early 1530s, fireworks would usually be ignited by “green men”, a term given to firemasters who covered their faces in soot and dressed in leaves in order to both protect themselves from sparks and be hard to see as they ran around lighting fuses.  From 1500-1700, the most popular type of firework was the “dragon”.  The massive device consisted of a wooden framework which was covered in painted paper-mach scales.  Inside, it was loaded with fountains, firecrackers, and rockets, some of which would shoot out of the mouth to make it “breathe fire”.  Often times, two or more dragons would be constructed and aimed at each other as they ignited to “battle”.

Around the 1730s, firework shows in England became huge public displays rather than just the private entertainment of royalty.  People from all over Europe would come to witness the spectacular fireworks displays at amusement parks in Britain.  The discovery of “quick match” – a fast-burning fuse made by putting regular fuse into a small, continuous paper tube – gave firemasters the ability to ignite many fireworks simultaneously, and enabled the construction of set pieces.  Set pieces are giant pictures/words made from hundreds of small burning torches, which were often created in the likeness of popular figures such as royalty.  

Fireworks in the New World

Settlers brought fireworks over to the Americas around the 1600s, where they continued to be used to celebrate special occasions and to impress or scare off Native Americans.  The very first 4th of July celebration was in 1777, only one year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  The United States was still in the midst of the Revolutionary War and the outcome was still uncertain, but beautiful displays of fireworks instilled a sense of hope and patriotism in the citizens of the young nation.  When trade relations were established between the U.S. and China less than a century later, Chinese firecrackers became a major import in America.

For nearly 1000 years, the only colors that could be produced by fireworks was the orange flash/sparks from black powder, and white sparks from metal powders.  But in southern Italy in the 1830s, scientific advancements in the field of chemistry enabled pyrotechnicians (the modern term for the old “fire masters”) to create reds, greens, blues, and yellows by adding both a metallic salt (strontium=red, barium=green, copper=blue, sodium=yellow) and a chlorinated powder to the firework composition.  Potassium chlorate (KClO3), a new oxidizer that burned faster and hotter than potassium nitrate, allowed pyrotechnicians to make the new colors deeper and brighter.  The harnessing of electrical energy made it possible to obtain pure magnesium and aluminum by electrolysis, which also made fireworks burn brighter.  When fine aluminum powder was mixed proportionally with an oxidizer, the resulting mixture – flash powder – burned much hotter and faster than black powder, allowing for the manufacture of louder firecrackers and salutes in aerial fireworks.