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How do fireworks work?

Fireworks are among the most popular signs of festivities in today’s society. No matter what the occasion, whether it’s birthday, anniversary or a public event, fireworks never ever fail to make an appearance. We are able to see and appreciate them all the time, but is there anything we can learn about fireworks? Apart from the fact that they explode, they create gorgeous patterns and colours in the sky. There’s a lot to learn about these fascinating artworks, so let’s take a look into the history and science behind fireworks.

What are fireworks ? What are the origins of them?

Fireworks are an aesthetic pyrotechnic which is classified as ‘low explosive’ (despite the way we may perceive them). Popular for their vibrant colours and typically loud sound, they have become a common part of life, with firework displays becoming widespread in some regions across the globe.

The origins of the bamboo stems are from China during the Song Dynasty, they were employed in the same manner as we do today, to commemorate important occasions. They were typically in the shape of bamboo stems with explosives that were thrown up into the air.

At that time fireworks were restricted in terms of type and color because of the materials available in addition to the general knowledge of pyrotechnics. In the 14th century, chemicals were applied to these earlier fireworks to enable them to give them colour, which was very useful for military smoke signals. It was also the time when fireworks started to find their ways into Europe, with knowledge of recipes gathered by some Europeans who were living in China at the time.

It was not up to the year 17thcentury that fireworks began to become widely popular and even then, the difficulty of acquiring chemicals and materials meant it wouldn’t be until the 20th century, when fireworks became available for purchase in all of their forms.

Types of fireworks

Many types of fireworks are available, including:

Catherine Wheels

The name is derived from the saint Catherine of Alexandria who was sentenced to death by an executioner’s wheel, and , upon touching it, the wheel broke into pieces. Due to the way that fireworks explode into a whirlwind of flaming sparks and rotating sparks when ignited, this name seems incredibly appropriate.

Smoke Bombs

Smoke Bombs are fireworks designed to create smoke clouds when ignited.

Firework Cakes/Barrages

These are fireworks that have multiple tubes , and are accompanied by Roman Candles or aerial shells that are linked by an extremely fast fuse. They produce long-lasting explosions which are stunning.


One of the most famous fireworks, ground-based fireworks that create sparks and starlights which are followed by crackling and whistling sounds.

Roman Candles

A classic firework that appears like a long tube which explodes stars and other shells to create colorful sparkling balls.


Popular in the current generation These are typically made of rockets that shoot through the air at high speeds, typically resulting in loud whooshing sounds, creating a huge explosion.

How do fireworks work? – The science of fireworks

In order for a firework to achieve the desired effect, it requires a series of chemical reactions which usually occur consecutively in a short space of time. By adding heating to this equation, the firework is an initiator for a chemical reaction which solid compounds inside the firework begin to melt in the presence of carbon dioxide in air. This converts into several other chemicals, which then release gases like nitrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

It is possible that you want to know how the colours are created that are present in fireworks. Well, again, the wonder of science can explain the mystery for all of us. The fireworks’ colours come from different metal compounds that contain in the fireworks. As they burn, these compounds emit different colors based on the substance.

A few early Chinese recipes for achieving different colors are Calcium compounds to create the red color, Lead carbonate for a violet colour, Copper Acetate for green, Mercurous Chrloride for white and Arsenical sulphide for yellow shades.

Since then, we’ve found new ways of achieving these colors. They are: Strontium salts for red and Calcium salts for orange, Sodium salts for Yellow, Salts of Barium to green Copper salts for blue the Copper as well as Strontium compounds for violet, white-hot Magnesium and aluminium for silver and burning metals such as Magnesium in white.

The reason that they can fly in the air at very high speeds is because of the hot gas that is released when igniting the firework. This rapid release the gas causes a lot of pressure that pushes the fireworks in the opposite direction the hot gas that is released.

Future of firework displays

Due to the popularity that fireworks have gained, their use in our modern society has seen the development of new methods for light shows to be introduced as competition.

As shown at Shanghai’s 2021 New Year celebrations, it is evident that we are entering the new age of drone technology is becoming a competitor for fireworks when displaying festivities.

But, they don’t manage to capture the natural beauty that fireworks provide. While they are nice however, it is the fire and the diversity of colours that makes fireworks science unbeatable. Because of this, it is certain that fireworks will always be an integral part of the culture around the world.