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What are some of the advances in fireworks technology?
July 03, 2001

Phil Grucci, vice president for design and operations for Fireworks By Grucci, replies:

Fireworks were originally invented in China, by accident actually, by mixing saltpeter, charcoal and nitrate. And at that time they used it for ceremonial and religious festivals, to scare off evil, if you will. In the beginning they were only white, or white and yellow, which is what black powder produces. Then Europeans were able to take that accident and turn it into an art form by adding the metals and chemicals that create the colors. When you start adding the metals and salts–copper, strontium, things of that nature–you start getting the colors of red, green and blue, from which you can get every color—every color in the rainbow and then the hues in between.

Over the last 100 years the thing that has changed drastically is the technology with which fireworks are fired. In the days of the early 1800’s (and still even now), fireworks were fired manually, with either a wick or a flare, one shell at a time. Now fireworks are fired electronically and are synchronized to music. The next element which has been introduced in the last ten years is computerized firing, where the entire show is automated. A typical ten- to fifteen-minute program would have 2 or 3 thousand [computer] sequences that would control the program automatically.

We’ve gotten to the point where we can fire an 8-minute program on a building, from 400 different locations on the building, with each one of those locations controlled by an individual computer message or signal that controls when that item is going to fire. In the past we used a traditional nail-board or push button system, and it would require tremendous amounts of wire, tremendous amounts of time, and the precision of the firing... you want to start at millisecond timing, and you’re never able to accomplish that manually, with a button. So we’re able to do sequences of chases and waves and fire from a 3,000 foot bridge, everything at one shot, you see 3,000 feet of fireworks go off in one instant. On some of the programs, we have a very precise time that we have to fire things—precise moments in the music that we have to hit a wave sequence—and the computer’s given us the ability to do that. The impact for an 8-minute fireworks program like this can be such that when you interview the audience afterwards, they feel like they’ve just watched a 20-minute fireworks program.

On the chemistry side, a lot of the chemicals, metals and salts have been refined to the point where you can manufacture fireworks to be placed on a table ten feet away from the audience, and because of that refinement you’re able to do that safely, indoors, with low smoke. The other chemical refinement has been with color. In the last 10 years, with the refinement of the chemistry we’re able to get the aquators and the short truces and the magentas, where in the past it was the blue, green, yellow, and the glitters. Now we’re able to get those hues that are in between. We’re often asked to do that to match a color for a particular logo or color scheme for a corporation.

Some of the recent innovations in fireworks using both the technology and the chemistry are pattern shells. Now we can actually place letters up in the sky, and numbers, which was very important for us leading into the millenium. You could put the number 10 in the sky, then 9, 8, and so on. In the past it was done on a rigid frame where the audience had to be much closer to see this, but now we could put up a number 9 that’s 600 feet in the air and the size of a football field, and the entire audience in the city of New York, for instance, millions of people, can see that countdown. There were some new items we manufactured for last 4th of July, like rainbow patterns—a shell that will break in the form of a rainbow, approximatly the size of two and a half football fields in the sky. The letters U, S and A were used extensively last year.

Each and every year we’re developing new unique looks and types of pyrotechnotics. We come up with an item by the chemical sense of it, and then we have the geometry as well as the physics of how we’re going to display the items. For instance, using the computer we’ve created pyrotechtic waves, where you’ll have a small comet that can go 150 feet in the air, but if you take a 100 of those and sequence them within a 10th of a second of each other, then it looks like a water show, like a bunch of water jets going off.

So it depends on how we sequence the firing and how we manufacture the items which gives us a different look year in and year out. These innovations are all in the physics of how the shell is loaded, how the stars are placed inside of the container and how the stars are loaded in the payload. That excites us, and as far as the design and what we’re able to do now with that kind of advancement—it just lets your imagination run wild.

interview by Brad Kloza

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