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Fireworks: Millennium-Old Magic
It’s taken centuries of tinkering to perfect the firework, which relies on much more than a dose of gunpowder to create a dazzling display. Read on to learn more about this brilliant invention.
Within a typical firework, there are numerous factors that determine the trajectory, color, and size of its explosion. Once an electrical wire or safety-trained wizard ignites the main fuse, it then triggers two secondary fuses—one attached to the lift charge, which hurtles the shell out of the launch tube, and one to a time-delay fuse that travels through the canister. Inside, the fuse sets off compartments filled with stars—small lumps of metal salts that, when ignited, produce the firework’s dazzling colors. These compartments might also contain sound charges, which consist of different kinds of explosives to produce specific effects. (Gunpowder, on its own, doesn’t create a terribly exciting boom.)
Look to the Eastern Sky
In the summer of 2008, more than 100,000 athletes, performers, and spectators gathered in Beijing National Stadium under a dazzling fireworks display that featured everything from dragons arcing across the sky to red peonies in bloom. The scope and pageantry was an appropriate celebration of the host country’s heritage, since by most accounts, fireworks originated in China with the discovery of gunpowder around 1,000 years ago. It’s believed that Chinese alchemists first stumbled upon gunpowder’s key ingredients—charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate—while searching, ironically, for an elixir of life.
- Colored fireworks didn’t appear until the 19th century, when pyrotechnicians discovered that adding metal salts to the mix yielded different colors.
- For example: sodium compounds make yellow, and barium—jealous of sodium’s higher place on the periodic table—makes green.
- European royalty used fireworks to convey their power and grandeur starting with the Renaissance. Czar Peter the Great staged a five-hour spectacle in honor of the birth of his son.
- In the 1890s, the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise was formed in the US to deter unskilled firework technicians from setting off displays.