The Basics about Fireworks

The dictionary defines fireworks, also termed pyrotechnics, as manufactured chemicals designed to make a loud and brilliant explosion when lit. That hardly does justice to the awe they inspire in young and old alike. We never outgrow the fascination of watching the stars burst, the glittering fountains rise into the dark, and the blaze of colors that sparkle and shimmer, accompanied by the sound of loud bangs and sometimes, an orchestra playing.

Fireworks are said to have been invented in ancient China (6th century AD), possibly by accident but so long ago that people still dispute whether that’s fact or legend. The mix of sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate or saltpeter did lead Chinese alchemists to develop gunpowder. To this day, China remains the biggest exporter of fireworks. Historians write that the technology spread first from China to the Arab world, became known in Europe in the 1300s, and in America in the 1800s (

The basic principle remains as it was from the beginning: a controlled explosion of chemicals shot into the air. Although complex art and science are involved in creating today’s breathtaking displays, the main components (simply) are a tube packed with combustible material and a fuse. Light the fuse and the combustion gas lifts the fireworks into the air. The explosions happen in stages, like a rocket. Physics dictates that the effect on the left will have a matching effect on the right (

Elements determine the color of fireworks. For instance, aluminum creates silver and white flames as in sparklers. Orange comes from calcium salts, red from lithium carbonate, and blue from copper compounds. Antimony adds glitter and zinc helps create the smoke (

Fireworks continue to be a tradition for the celebration of Chinese New Year. Cities around the world usher in each January 1 with a spectacular midnight fireworks display. Fireworks light up the sky across the U.S. on Independence Day, on Guy Fawkes’ Day in the U.K., and on Bastille Day in France.

But as beautiful as they are, fireworks are explosions, therefore dangerous, and best left to the professionals who install and control the displays. Next day news stories typically report incidents of severe burns from playing with fireworks and other injuries that are sometimes fatal. That’s why they remain illegal for personal use in many parts of the world.