It takes a thesaurus to describe what fireworks can do nowadays. They arc, zoom, twist, and shiver. They whistle, screech, and boom. They assume all kinds of shapesstars, hearts, rings, flowers, trees. The variety of colors and effects gets wilder ever year.
The Chinese are usually credited with inventing fireworks. The combination of chemicals that produced gunpowder probably was an accident, but it has proven a momentous one. By the mid-16th century, fireworks were an established part of the election of a pope in Europe. They have been a part of celebrations in the U.S. since our country was established.
Following the Revolutionary War, veterans celebrated Independence Day by firing their muskets. For decades, each annual celebration was punctuated with small arms fire. Fortunately, one quaint method of celebration is no longer practiced. In the middle of the 19th century, someone got the bright ideaand, incredibly, many others liked the ideaof placing an anvil atop a bag of gunpowder and blowing it sky high. The history books don’t mention the survival rate of participants in this form of entertainment.
Cheap firecrackers came to the U.S. from China, shortly after the end of the Civil War. They were mostly noise, and Americans considered them too mild. So, with the pioneer spirit that made this country what it is today, they set to work making firecrackers more dangerous. Soon the miniature bombs were causing thousands of cases of blindness, lost limbs, and other injuries each year. Public health advocates, and finally the press, demanded the ban of firecrackers. By the middle of this century, over half the states had made the possession or explosion of firecrackers illegal.
By the 1970s, a nationwide ban seemed imminent. Instead, two formerly opposing forces worked out a compromise. The federal government imposed standards. It banned the highly dangerous cherry bomb and instituted a maximum explosive capability for firecrackers that comes out to about one-30th of the force of cherries. Fireworks manufacturers, determined to preserve their lucrative and popular business, raised their quality-control standards. Better fuses and more stable chemical combinations helped. And so firecrackers began to be popular again. During the 1990s, the sale of firecrackers has almost doubled, but the number of injuries has remained about the same. Not that the number is insignificant. Every year hundreds of people in the U.S. are woundedsome seriously or even fatallyby fireworks.
The heat of the moment
The love of fireworks has led to some bizarre incidents. In Paris in 1749, during a celebration for the end of the Wars of Austrian Succession, the French and Italians quarreled over who had precedence in lighting the pyrotechnics. Each country lit its fireworks at the same time, and the entire mass exploded together. Forty people died and 300 others were wounded. During the English celebration of the same event, a similar battle for priority resulted in misplaced explosions, fires, and other disasters. But a lasting work of art, commissioned for the occasion, emergedGeorge Frederick Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.
One side effect of fireworks mania is that collectors spend hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars for rare old fireworks labels. Covered in beautiful, intricate designs, featuring illustrations of everything from seductive sirens to dinosaurs, the labels surpass even stamps in exotic allure. Some collectors protest that safety warnings are now elbowing out the wonderful old illustrations.
Intellectuals have come up with some outrageous rationales for the appeal of fireworks. Kevin Saltino, a scholar at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, claims that fireworks are about politics, propaganda, sex, sublimity, order over chaos, and intellectual illumination. And, not least, he says, “They are a memento moria reminder of death.” However, a child overheard last year may have said it better: “The colors are neat, and I like that big boom.”
What goes up
The amount of fireworks set off in the U.S. each year is approaching the 100 million-pound mark. Seventy-five percent of it is exploded over the Independence Day holiday. It’s not surprising that shooting thousands of tons of explosives into the air has several effects on the natural environment.
First is the noise. Explosions are traumatic interruptions in the lives of animals, who find them frightening rather than entertaining. For example, fireworks displays interrupt the lives of terns nesting on the sandy beaches of the northeastern U.S. Early July is a critical time for the terns, since its when the adults are incubating eggs on the nests. If the adult leaves the nest for only a minute or two, predators arrive in search of defenseless prey. Frequently, fireworks celebrations frighten the birds so much that they abandon their nests entirely. The birds’ mortality rate soars during the Fourth of July week.
In the hills around Tucson, Ariz., people celebrating Independence Day expect two kinds of fiery celebrations. First come the fireworks that light up the night sky. Then, as the rockets fall to the desert below, they start brush fires, further amusing onlookers who give little thought to the damage being caused. Fearing the same dangerous side effect, a drought- and fire-plagued Florida has banned fireworks for the Fourth this year.
The environmental hazards of fireworks go beyond noise and the risk of fire. Recent studies reveal that, after fireworks displays, the atmosphere is saturated with increased amounts of fine particles, including higher-than-expected concentrations of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxide. The weather can also have an effect. In the U.S., fireworks are most often exploded during the hot, muggy first week of July. Temperature inversions and still air can result in sharply increased pollutionexactly what smog-ridden cities don’t need.
Masters of the match
Pyro Shows Inc., located in modest La Follette, Tenn., has an impressive résumé. In 1993, the company won the North American Fireworks Competition. Two years later, Pyro Shows represented the U.S. in the International Fireworks Competition held in Stockholm, taking home a silver medal, the highest award ever won by an American company in that contest. In 1995 and 1996, Pyro Shows did the Independence Day fireworks display in Washington, D.C. They even provided the fireworks for the silver anniversary of the United Arab Emirates.
As in past years, Pyro Shows will create the fireworks display for Nashville’s Fourth of July Celebration at Riverfront Park.
Lansden Hill has been with the company since 1969 and is now president and CEO. He explains why this year’s display may be the most impressive in Nashville’s history: “Luckily for us, the stadium is being built, and the construction site is ideal as a launch site for the fireworks. So now, instead of having to look to the extreme stage left, the crowd at Riverfront Park will have a virtual panorama. The theatrical setting for the fireworks is the best we’ve ever had.
“Another benefit of this necessity is that we are now farther away from Ashland Oil, and the fire marshal has approved the use of larger shells than we ever used on the Woodland Street Bridge. The fireworks will be wider, and they will go higher and they will break larger. I know the public doesn’t really care whether the projectile travels at 125 miles an hour or 165 miles an hour, or whether it weighs 7 pounds or 15 pounds. But the end result is, it will be a bigger, more intense, and more spectacular program.”
The 20-minute program will include approximately 8,000 pyrotechnic effects. “There’ll be the regular array of reds, whites, blues, and a myriad of pastel colors,” Hill says. “And the unique pattern shells, like the Saturn ring, the atomic ring, and other pattern shellshearts, stars, hourglass, butterfly. One of the most spectacular effects will be a gold willow that has a duration of about eight seconds. That’s of Japanese origin. We’ll be using Italian Roman candles, Spanish mine bags, French helicopters, Chinese chrysanthemums and peonies. We’ll have palm trees made in Taiwan and rainbow magnesium shells made here in the United States. We buy various shells in large quantities from factories all over the world, and then combine the products of all those factories and styles into one program.”
Don’t play with fire
On July 3, 1996, a young man in Ohio set off a box of firecrackers inside a fireworks store. The 15-minute series of explosions killed eight people and wounded 12 more. Six weeks later, a rocket at a fireworks show in Peru went astray and hit a high-tension electrical cable, which fell into the crowd, killing 35 people. Investigators said many of them burst into flame after receiving 10,000 volts of electricity. Closer to home was the blast in June of last year, in LaFollette, Tenn., where Pyro Shows’ own warehouse full of fireworks awaiting the Fourth exploded, killing four employees and sending rockets raining fire around the site.
If you don’t work in a fireworks factory and don’t plan to blow up a fireworks store, you have only two things to worry aboutnot hurting yourself or someone else while setting off at-home pyrotechnics, and safely enjoying the public display.
It’s astonishing how many accidents are caused by people ignoring the few simple safety precautions for igniting fireworks at home. Following the rules could prevent many injuries:
♦ Read the directions. Make sure you understand what each firework is supposed to do.
♦ Don’t allow children to play with fireworks unsupervised. This cardinal rule is the one most often violated. The result is a surprising number of maimed and even blinded children.
♦ Ignite fireworks outdoors, safely away from houses and flammable materials, such as dry leaves.
♦ Don’t experiment by taking fireworks apart, combining them, or enclosing them in containers.
♦ Keep water handy. Dunk the dud fireworks; don’t try to relight them. By not firing at once, they have already proven their defective status, which makes them more dangerous, not less.
The guidelines are even simpler when attending a public display:
♦ Usually the show is best observed from at least a couple hundred yards away. However, if you’re close to the firing site, remain in the designated viewing area. If you’re too close, you could be in danger from burning fragments, shells that explode too soon, and duds.
♦ If you find a dud or an unexploded fragment, don’t nab it as a souvenir; even dropping it could make it explode. Call a fireman or a cop. Likewise, don’t go prowling the site for souvenirs after the show. Regard it as a minefield until the professionals have checked it for malfunctioning shells.
♦ Don’t bring along the family pets. Each year the American Veterinary Medical Association reminds pet owners that fireworks don’t just damage animals’ hearing. Pets can also be frightened so that they bolt away and get hurt in some other way.
Light up the sky
On the Fourth, if you look up as you arrange your picnic blanket or deck chairs, you can check out nature’s celestial fireworks before the artificial ones muck up the sky.
Almost straight overhead in the twilight sky you’ll find the star Arcturus, shining orange-yellow. If you look low in the west after the sun goes down, you’ll see the planet Mercury looking like a reasonably bright star. It doesn’t get far above the horizon at this time of year, so this will be your last chance to see it as an evening star. Also, this is the time of year when the Moon doesn’t rise very high into the southern sky, which means it looks nearer and brighter and makes more of its details visible to even a low-powered pair of binoculars.
The natural show seems tame and quiet by comparison only because it’s so far away. Like most things in life, it’s a matter of perspective.
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