How do fireworks… work?

Thursday 5th November

It’s November the 5th and here in the UK it’s Bonfire Night. We all gather together eat toffee apples, play with sparklers and watch giant fireworks exploding across the sky.

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Last night I was at a huge community firework display (don’t ask why it was on the 4th), and while we were watching this fantastic spectacle in front of us lot’s of people were asking, how is this done? How do they time the fireworks? How do they conduct a 30 minute non-ending display? And tonight if your children are asking the same thing, this fantastic interview via CBS News with pyrotechnicians is a great insight.

“Today, the spectacular effects are orchestrated by a network of explosives, wires, firing cues and a computer. Fireworks can also be ignited by a microchip activated remotely.

“The biggest technology that’s been a real game-changer here has been the ability to leverage automation — the ability to leverage the computers,” said chief pyrotechnician Pat Buffonlino.

“We have a type of firework device that we use that’s [called] a pixel shell. And basically, what it is is a firework that goes up, has a programmable chip inside that firework that we can pre-program, so not only can we call out exactly what time we want that firework to leave the mortar, we can also program it to exactly what time in the sky we want that shell to give it’s effect.”

In the past, technicians would have to ignite the fuses by hand, putting them in close proximity to dangerous explosives. Advances in the industry have mitigated the risk of serious injury.

“Nowadays, with the technology we’ve been able to leverage, we can be up to 100, 200, 300 feet away, where the discharge area is when we’re firing that program,” said Buffonlino. “Safety is first and foremost the most important aspect of [a fireworks] program. Not only of the technicians who are working with me to put this program together, but the safety of the audience and that we don’t damage any of the property at these venues.”

Months of planning culminate in an event that typically lasts about 30 minutes, or if you’re really unfortunate, like this display in Oban, a technical hitch can mean they all go off in less than 1 minute.