Things That Go Boom

Effing fireworks, man

Jul 1, 2014 at 2:18 pm
Riverfest - Photo: CityBeat Archive
Photo: CityBeat Archive

Fireworks: exploding balls of color, light and sound that humans have used for centuries to celebrate holidays, festivals and whatever else they want, including birthdays, coronations and a yearly reminder that WEBN is still relevant.

But their origins lie in something a bit more violent.


In mid-9th century China, alchemists were trying to create an elixir for long life and accidentally invented gunpowder instead (lol). They discovered a blend of potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal was combustible and, shortly after, began launching the mix at their enemies via “fire arrows” — tubes of burning gunpowder attached to arrows. Thus rockets and the tradition of hurtling explosives at people you don’t like were born (see also: rockets’ red glare).

The Italians were a little more gentle when Marco Polo brought pyrotechnics back home from his Far East travels in 1295. (It’s unclear whether he brought back actual fireworks, gunpowder or bamboo firecrackers — bamboo makes a loud sound and explodes when heated; helpful in ancient China for driving away evil spirits.) The Italians and the rest of the Holy Roman Empire thought fireworks were cool and started using them for celebrations (for the rich and royal only) instead of always using them for killing.

By the 1400s, Florence, Italy was the center of fireworks production. By 1532, ruler of the Roman Empire, Charles V, exploded them to celebrate military victories. In the 18th century, France’s Louis XV hosted extravagant fireworks displays at Versailles (again for royals only); and Russian czar Peter the Great hosted a five-hour fireworks show after the birth of his son.

In 1730s England, fireworks became a public spectacle. And in 1770s America, we were using fireworks to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence because John Adams told us to; the first of many annual Fourth of July fireworks in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777.


According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, Americans bought 207.5 million pounds of fireworks in 2012, spending $645 million. That’s $645 million on basically a paper shell full of gunpowder.

Since ancient China, the make-up of fireworks’ propellant hasn’t changed. But now instead of attaching burning black powder to arrows or sticking it in bamboo, we nestle it in a shell. The science is pretty straightforward: You light a fuse, it causes an explosion propelling the firework into the air, where a second fuse ignites the black powder, causing another explosion in which the shell explodes releasing “stars.” The stars, these little packets of chemicals, are the interesting part; how they are placed in the shell determines the pattern you see in the sky. You want a smiley face? Put them in the shell in a smiley face pattern. (Actually, you do not put them in; fireworks manufacturers do.)

When the stars heat, they blow up and you see light and color based on chemical reactions the Italians figured in the 1830s: add strontium for red, barium for green, copper for blue, sodium for yellow and calcium for orange. Popular patterns are frequently named for flowers because the stars break off like petals: a peony is the traditional firework explosion; a chrysanthemum bursts into a sphere and the stars leave a trail of sparks; and dahlias travel longer than usual with fewer and larger stars. Some other popular fireworks are the crackling rain fireworks, made by slow-burning stars that leave a trail of glittering sparks and make a loud sizzle. Or the waterfall: heavy, long-burning tailed stars that free-fall close to their shell to create a waterfall appearance.


In America, there are basically two types of fireworks: consumer and professional, as classified by the United Nations explosives shipping classification system. (Super boring, but 1.4G = consumer; 1.3G = for public displays, with a permit, like the aforementioned peonies and dahlias.)

In Ohio, you cannot purchase fireworks — the big, fun ones (1.3G) — without an exhibitor permit from the local fire chief and local chief law enforcement officer. You can buy a few types of consumer fireworks (1.4G), if you’re 18 and older: sparklers, trick noisemakers and novelties. If you purchase bigger consumer explosives like firecrackers, bottle rockets, roman candles or fountains, you have to buy them from a licensed retailer and agree to take them out of state within 48 hours; they cannot be detonated here.

In Kentucky, if you’re 16 years or older, you can purchase and detonate any of the following: sky and bottle rockets, aerial spinners, Roman candles, firecrackers, chasers, and mines, shell, aerial kits, reloadable tubes not exceeding 200 grams. Still no public display fireworks, but the Fourth gets slightly more exciting once you cross the Ohio.

Fun Facts

  • Cincinnati Bell/WEBN’s Riverfest is the second largest fireworks display in North America.
  • Sparklers burn at temperatures upward of 2,000 degrees
  • In 1731, settlers in Rhode Island got in trouble for pranking people (and “natives”) with fireworks, prompting a mischevious use ban.
  • The Walt Disney Company is the largest consumer of fireworks in the United States
  • The parts of the body most often injured from fireworks: hands and fingers (30 percent); legs (22 percent); eyes (21 percent); and head, face and ears (16 percent).