How Fireworks Work

This week marks Independence Day in the United States.  A celebration of our country’s founding, the day is often marked with parades, cookouts, and fireworks.  But how much do you know about how we create those colorful explosions in the sky?  We thought we’d take a break from our regularly scheduled programming and explain how fireworks actually work.  If you’re still craving content about electronic medical records and data extraction, head over to our HealthyData Blog archives, and if you’d like to read about hot topics in government, including redaction and indexing, check out our GovNews Blog.

The first firework has a history much older than that of the US, and was created over a thousand years ago in China.  Different theories on the invention of fireworks say that they may have been discovered by accident, mixing common kitchen items that exploded; others think a monk named Li Tian stuffed a piece of bamboo with gunpowder to make a loud noise to scare off ghosts.

The basic structure of a firework hasn’t changed much in the past thousand years, as it still consists of a casing, explosives, and a detonation mechanism.  Since the time of Li Tian, though, the explosives have been imbued with a variety of metals that give them color and are launched into the sky before explosion.  Here PBS shares some popular colors and the metals that cause the color emission:

(Source:  PBS )

(Source: PBS)

In addition to the various colors that can be created, elements like aluminum and antimony can be added to the shell to create sparkle or glitter effects.

As it stands now, the firework shell has two fuses: a short burning one and a long burning one.  The short burning fuse launches the explosive in the air from a mortar, while the long burning fuse is timed so the star doesn’t explode until it’s high into the air.  Recently, though, some engineers have been experimenting with compressed air to launch the shell into the air, which actually allows for greater precision, and is unsurprisingly safer than having multiple fuses.

Upgrades in fireworks are particularly welcome given the environmental and health concerns raised by the massive displays.  Fireworks shows often leave the air polluted for days after they conclude, which is of particular concern for at-risk populations.  Additionally, as these metals are being burned in the sky, the remnants must come back down, tainting the ground and water.  Luckily, the push for fireworks that are friendlier to our health has begun.

The United States Army has pushed “green” fireworks technology forward, finding alternatives to the traditional oxidizers that start the explosive burning.  Oxidizers like such as perchlorate can disrupt hormone production and cause embryo abnormalities.  While the Army researched this for flares and flash point bullets, the change is welcome for civilian fireworks as well.

All in all, fireworks have remained relatively constant over the years, but improvements are being made with regard to sustainability.  We at Extract hope you have a safe and fun 4th of July and enjoy the show put on in your local area.  Let’s just hope it goes better than this one:


About the Author: Chris Mack

Chris is a Marketing Manager at Extract with experience in product development, data analysis, and both traditional and digital marketing.  Chris received his bachelor’s degree in English from Bucknell University and has an MBA from the University of Notre Dame.  A passionate marketer, Chris strives to make complex ideas more accessible to those around him in a compelling way.