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Posts Tagged ‘gunpowder’

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images.
Fireworks in the shape of smiling faces at the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 9, 2018, in South Korea. 

Did you get to see fireworks over the Fourth this year? Ours were to be launched from a barge in the ocean, but there was too much wind, so no dice. There’s talk about doing them at Labor Day instead.

If we had had fireworks, it would have been good for my attitude this year. Fireworks have a certain nutty innocence about them, whereas my patriotic fervor has really been put to the test by events in our country the last few years, coming to a head in spring. It feels like only a handful of people are running what’s supposed to be a democracy. I don’t get it. For example, how can it possibly be the case that nothing gets through our elected Congress unless one senator likes it? Whew.

So, fireworks. Salon magazine has a nice story about some of the finer points of producing dazzling, Gandalf-like artistry. I don’t know about you, but I’m smitten with wonder just as much as a hobbit child when rockets turn into elaborate, endlessly unfolding displays.

Nicole Karlis reports, “Fireworks have come a long way since they were first discovered in 200 B.C.in China. Historians believe that fireworks were created by accident when bamboo was tossed into fire. Then, around 800 B.C., an alchemist* allegedly mixed sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate in a search for eternal life— instead, the mixture led to gunpowder.

“Gunpowder was used in early wars, but it didn’t take long for people to notice that the mixture being shot into the night sky also led to something [colorful and bright]. …

“The tradition of launching fireworks to commemorate Independence Day dates back to a letter John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams in 1776. In it, he wished for future generations to observe the day with ‘[Shows], Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.’ The first official Fourth of July fireworks reportedly occurred the following year.

“Today, firework shows … don’t always look like wilting willow trees or shooting stars in the sky. Instead, they come in various shapes and sizes — from animals to flowers to written text. Known as ‘patterned fireworks,’ these types of fireworks are relatively new to the fireworks world. We asked pyrotechnician Mike Tockstein, a licensed pyrotechnic operator in California, and owner and operator of Pyrotechnic Innovations, more about how these fireworks work.

Salon: How long have these existed?
“Tockstein: Pattern shells have been around since at least the 1990s in the United States, but it’s hard to say they were not used before that in other countries or even further back in time. …

“I would certainly call it old technology. They don’t differ much at all from your standard peony shell, which is the most basic of all aerial fireworks, being a round shell which breaks in a large spherical pattern in the sky. [A] spherical shell will break symmetrically due to a number of well-known principles in physics, such as conservation of momentum, which says momentum before and after the explosion must be equal, therefore the momentum of the material moving in one direction has to equal that of the material moving in the exact opposite direction. …

“There are other physics at play, but if a shell is built properly and the casing fails in a uniform fashion, a spherical shell will break in a spherical pattern. Now that we understand that, the only thing you have to do is lay the stars out inside the shell in the same pattern you want to see in the sky. …

“Pattern shells started with simple shapes such as hearts, but now-a-days you are only limited by your imagination.  Happy faces, rings, cubes, stars, spirals, alphanumeric letters, Saturn shells which look like a planet with a ring around it. I think I even saw a Bozo the Clown face one time. Here is a video of a few Jelly Fish shells, where you can clearly see the cap and tentacles.

Could someone request a custom, complicated shape, e.g. an @ sign? How complicated is it for these kinds of fireworks?
“Yes, if far enough in advance, a custom pattern shell could be made in most cases.  An @ sign would be fairly simple since it is a simple 2D spiral shape.  More complicated shapes could take longer to figure out, fabricate, and test.

How are they designed so that they explode in a manner that the shape is visible from the ground?
“Given that a smiley-face is 2D, presumably if it exploded such that its plane were perpendicular to the viewer, it would appear to look like a straight line.

“They are designed as a 2D shape, so the orientation they explode in the sky is important to being able to see the pattern. The shells themselves cannot orient themselves a certain way when shot out of a mortar. To overcome this, whenever we do a happy face or other pattern shell ‘look’ during a show, we send multiple shells up so that statistically one or more will likely break with the proper orientation to the audience.” More at Salon, here.

* A modern-day Alchemist and blogger in Canada makes beautiful Raku pottery full of mysterious starbursts like fireworks. Check him out, please. He can mail to the US and elsewhere.

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