Independence Day, as I hope you all know, celebrates the birth of a new nation. This new nation was founded on the principles of self-government. Abraham Lincoln said it best in his Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863, “that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” It is by way of this freedom that new technologies were birthed, some of these technologies came about to improve life and others to improve entertainment. In celebration of the 246th birthday of our great nation, this week we will learn about the technology behind the fireworks used in celebration.

In the early days of fireworks it was all about the noise. The first known fireworks were developed in the second century B.C. in Liuyang, China. They were crafted from bamboo stalks with pockets of air that would explode with a bang when thrown in a fire, causing sparks to fly into the air and ward off evil spirits. Later it was learned that mixing saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal would produce an explosive powder similar to gunpowder. Legend says that Captain John Smith of Jamestown, Va., was the first to set off a fireworks display in the American colonies in 1608; the same style and type of fireworks were later used on July 4, 1777, to celebrate the signing and delivery of the Declaration of Independence.

Surprisingly as early as 1240, color was added to the fireworks by adding certain types of metal to the paper confetti expelled by the explosion; one could create bursts containing multiple colors, at first on the ground and later launched into the sky. The early colors were yellow from arsenical sulphide, green from copper acetate, lilac-white from lead carbonate and bright-white from mercurous chloride. In 1797 Sir John Barrow, an English geographer wrote, “The diversity of colours indeed with which the Chinese have the secret of cloathing fire seems to be the chief merit of their pyrotechny.” The advent of modern chemistry has allowed us to add many more colors to fireworks, and even the ability to mix the colors, making it possible to create any color imaginable, though some are extremely expensive.

The first use of rocketry was to launch these multi-colored, explosive balls of fire high into the night sky, resulting in spectacular displays that still fascinate people today. The same propulsion techniques used in the 14th century for fireworks displays were used to invent the first rockets to reach space.

The latest technology to be added to fireworks is computer chips to control the timing of the explosions and the ignitions of particles. It is possible today for a pyrotechnist to create controlled fireworks displays at a level of detail never seen before, all timed perfectly to musical soundtracks. Several methods exist for creating specific shapes in the night sky, but one challenge still remains, the creation of letters to spell out phrases remains a challenge to the industry. The simplest of these techniques is to manually lay out the shape on a cardboard layer within the firework shell, controlling the dispersion of the chemicals. However, the only known way to get the precision necessary to spell phrases is through the use of computer controlled explosions.

I hope you all enjoyed the holiday weekend and took the time to watch some fireworks displays with friends and family.

Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to or through his website at

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