Ooooo! Aaaaah! Wow!

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This is the season for fireworks. The night sky comes alive with a rainbow spray of sparks. The flower-shaped boomers scatter their hot seeds to the breeze and cast a special and beautiful magic only they can do. The graceful arching rockets that silently explode like brilliant dandelion heads illuminate the clouds of smoke from previous shells and reflect off the dark waters of the lake.

The crowds of viewers oooo and aaaah. Children shriek in delight.

Scenes like that are repeated in thousands of cities across the nation every Fourth of July. It says something about our psyches, I think, that we enjoy these incendiary pleasures. Our national anthem could easily be referring to modern-day pyrotechnic displays: “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air …” (Don’t tell me you didn’t sing that last sentence.) (You did, didn’t you?)

Almost everybody has some personal experience with fireworks, usually from Fourth of July celebrations. Almost everyone has played with sparklers and firecrackers. We’ve all been warned by our mothers: “You’ll blow your fingers off with those cherry bombs!” But did you ever wonder how this magic works? What is launched into the sky to make these beautiful displays?

There’s a great internet site called I went there to find out about fireworks, and I was amazed at how much information there was available. I highly recommend the site.

Well, according to howstuffworks, if you understand firecrackers and sparklers, then you already know something about aerial fireworks. The sparkler shows how to get bright, sparkling light from a firework, and the firecracker shows how to create an explosion.

Howstuffworks says that firecrackers have been around for hundreds of years. They consist of either black powder (also known as gunpowder) or flash powder (the kind that old-time photographers used) in a tight paper tube with a fuse to light the powder. Black powder contains charcoal, sulfur and potassium nitrate. A composition used in a firecracker might have aluminum instead of or in addition to charcoal in order to brighten the explosion. Flash powder, the kind originally used in photography, is mostly potassium nitrate or magnesium. When lit, flash powder burns extremely fast. It can be compared to a high explosive because of how fast it burns.

Sparklers are very different from firecrackers. They burn over a relatively long period of time (up to a minute) and produce extremely bright and showery light. Sparklers can be made up of potassium nitrate or potassium chlorate, and metal fragments such as powdered aluminum or titanium are used to create the sparks.

An aerial firework is normally a combination of the materials in a firecracker and a sparkler. Located just below the shell containing those materials is a small cylinder that contains the lifting charge.

The shell is launched from a mortar. The mortar might be a short, steel pipe with a lifting charge of black powder that explodes in the pipe to launch the shell. When the lifting charge fires to launch the shell, it lights the shell’s fuse. The shell’s fuse burns while the shell rises to its correct altitude, and then ignites the bursting charge so it explodes.

There, that’s how the stuff works, according to What else do you need to know? Except that in Wisconsin and most other states, private citizens are not allowed to (legally) set them off. It’s not illegal to possess them or for merchants to sell them; it’s just illegal to use them. But can you imagine the law enforcement people trying to make people follow the law? For some reason, we like fire and explosions. And we sure do like fireworks. Oooo! Aaaaah!

Roger VanHaren can be contacted at