A look at how fireworks actually work

Shutterstock.com/ NDAB Creativity
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Fireworks are an integral part of many of our celebrations today. With their spellbinding arrays of patterns, vibrant colors, and sounds, fireworks offer a multisensory experience with the perfect pomp and grandeur for important events. It is no wonder that fireworks are not only a staple of Independence Day and New Year celebrations in the United States but also mark multicultural celebrations all over the world.

Fireworks can be traced back to as long as 1,000 years. While the fireworks then were nothing more than small, noisy explosions, modern versions are capable of extravagant displays with a wide range of colors, shapes, and sounds. Fireworks have significantly evolved over the millennia, undergoing much experimentation along the way. You may wonder how fireworks actually work. Here is a closer look at how some of the popular fireworks do.


Rockets are probably the most common fireworks in the display repertoire. A rocket typically consists of an aerial shell made of gunpowder and small pellets of explosive materials called stars. While it is the metal compounds in the stars that impart their color to the fireworks when they explode, it is the various configurations of the stars that produce the different designs. The shell is equipped with fuses and loaded into a mortar that is set on the ground or often partially buried in dirt.

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When the fuse below the shell known as the fast-acting fuse is ignited, the gunpowder explodes, propelling the shell into the air. While airborne, at the targeted altitude, another fuse inside the aerial shell, the time-delay fuse, ignites and triggers a second explosion. This causes the shell to burst open and send the stars flying outwards in all directions, producing the pyrotechnic display.


Unlike rockets, fountains do not launch into the air to create displays; instead, they are ground-based fireworks that emit displays while being stationary. The anatomy of a fountain is simpler than that of a rocket. Usually conical in shape, a fountain comprises a paper or a plastic tube filled with pressed pyrotechnic composition and clay plugs at either end. The plug at the base of the fountain is solid while the clay choke at the top has an aperture. The metal compounds in the composition determine the color of the fireworks.

When the fuse is lit, the fuel composition ignites and unleashes sparks that are forced out of the aperture at the top. The effect is volcano-like plumes of cascading sparks in a multitude of colors.

Catherine wheels

Catherine wheels, also known as pinwheels are another type of fireworks that are very common. As the name suggests, Catherine wheels eject sparks as they spin, creating a spiral of sparks. The basic design of a Catherine wheel includes a powder-filled spiral tube with a pin through its center that is attached to a pole or a mount. Bigger Catherine wheels generally have a plastic hub at the center on which to rotate with tubes mounted on the hub. These tubes, much like fountains are filled with a pyrotechnic mixture of ingredients.

When lit, the fuses combine and ignite the mixture; as the powder burns creating sparks, the thrust from the explosives causes the hub to rotate, making the display mesmerizing.

Hopefully, after reading this, you understand how some of our favorite fireworks actually work. Fireworks are synonymous with celebrations these days. They bring us together as we gather to watch the displays. However, as we enjoy the beauty of fireworks, now, we can also appreciate the fact that what we see is a celebration of science and precision.

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