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Good Question: How Do Fireworks Get Their Shapes, Colors & Sounds?

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(credit: CBS) Heather Brown
Heather Brown loves to put her innate curiosity to work to answer yo...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Fireworks might have been invented in China 1,500 years ago, but we’ve been using them to celebrate since the U.S.A.’s first Fourth of July.

“They just give a little oompf to the celebration,” said Mandana Moshrefzadeh of Oakdale.

So, that had Mary Sullivan of Franklin wondering: How do fireworks get their shapes, colors and sounds?

Many people think fireworks are fueled by gunpowder, but that’s not case when it comes to the big, regulated, expensive shows. Those kinds of fireworks are made up of chemicals.

“Every one of the fireworks devices that you see is handmade by an individual, there are no machine that make fireworks,” said Dale Nowak, a design representative with Pyrotechnic Display, Inc.

He took WCCO-TV behind-the-scenes to a show in Plymouth, where six workers spent 10 hours setting up for a 20 minute show.

Nowak says different chemicals, like potassium perchlorate and sulfur, are rolled up into a cylindrical ball.

Then, other chemicals are added to change colors.

“Some of the copper salts for blue, barium for green and some of the real, bright whites are using magnesium,” Nowak said.

To get different sounds, the fireworks are put into different shapes and use different chemicals. Whistles are cylindrical tubes.

“The boom that everyone likes is basically comprised of flash powder, which is potassium perchlorate and sulfur and some other chemicals.”

Shapes are packed inside the ball in the same way we see them in the sky. A smiley face, for example, looks like a smiley face in an unexploded firework and then is carefully calculated to explode.

“The shell is ignited from the exact center,” Nowak said. “So that the face looks like a round face as opposed to elongated.”

One thing fireworks manufacturers haven’t figured out yet is how the fireworks break in the sky. For example, you might see an upside smiley face, it wasn’t planned that way – that’s just how it ended up exploding.

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