Playing With Fire

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A tugboat pushes us slowly past the waterfront of Fall River, Massachusetts. Lined up on the steel decks of two barges are twelve hundred mortars packed with explosive charges. Overhead, evening sunlight drapes white mountains of summer clouds.

 

A tugboat pushes us slowly past the waterfront of Fall River, Massachusetts. Lined up on the steel decks of two barges are twelve hundred mortars packed with explosive charges. Overhead, evening sunlight drapes white mountains of summer clouds.

“I get a few knots in my stomach about now,” says Frank M. Coluccio, an easygoing mustached man of fifty who is president of Legion Fireworks. He is sorting out the wires that will connect his guns to an electric control panel. The last-minute jitters are understandable. In an hour Coluccio and his partner, Jennie Bradford, will take the stage in front of tens of thousands of eager spectators for one of the company’s biggest shows of the season. While they mount their fireworks extravaganza to cap an annual city celebration, the two will be stationed in the midst of a storm of exploding gunpowder potent enough to heave shells the size of a basketball a thousand feet into the air. It gives, Coluccio says, “an adrenaline rush.”

Legion carries on a venerable craft tradition that has permeated pyrotechnics since it arrived in Italy from China five hundred years ago. Using methods that have changed little over centuries and formulas passed down by word of mouth, Coluccio and his people hand-fashion many of their shells in small workshops. The well-known pyrotechnic clans—the Gruccis of Long Island or the Zambellis of New Castle, Pennsylvania—grab the glamour shows. But it’s the smaller firms that decorate the Fourth of July in towns across the country and provide the fiery, satisfying climax to firefighters’ carnivals, ethnic fairs, and municipal celebrations.

 

Man is the only animal that is afraid of the dark and the only one that has mastered fire. Pyrotechnics is the art of artificial fire, fire that is independent of the diluted oxygen in the air. Fireworks mixtures include an oxidizer, a material that gives up oxygen when heated. This chemical, typically potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, must be purified, ground to a powder, and mixed with equally pulverized fuel. The resulting composition burns with astonishing rapidity and vigor.

We can trace the roots of pyrotechnics to medieval China, where alchemists experimented with purified chemicals in search of an elixir of life. Perhaps having observed how saltpeter lent energy to fire, around A.D. 850 they tried combining the mineral with charcoal and sulfur. The result proved magical. The mixture, which in the West came to be known as gunpowder, was one of the discoveries, according to the philosopher Francis Bacon, that revolutionized the world.

Yet the invention did not révolutionize Chinese society. The idea that the Chinese used gunpowder only for celebration goes too far; in fact they invented flame-throwing fire lances and incendiary war rockets early on. But without a true gun the Chinese did not fundamentally alter their method of making war. By the twelfth century they were using huo yao , “fire drug,” for pleasurable diversions.

When gunpowder reached Europe in the thirteenth century, it inspired the cannon, which spelled the end of aristocratic feudalism and shaped the modern nation-state. At the same time, the awakening of knowledge that followed the Dark Ages nurtured the birth of pyrotechnics, which by the 1400s had begun to be incorporated into pageants and celebrations across Europe, a flickering of controlled fire to welcome the Renaissance.

At fall river, as we chug out to take our position before the city’s riverside park, we pass the USS Massachusetts , now part of a naval museum. The sight of the battleship’s massive sixteen-inch guns invokes the connection between pyrotechnics and warfare. Up until the eighteenth century, armies commonly employed civilian fire masters to handle their artillery. Their profession was closely associated with alchemy, danger, and dark secrets. They supervised cannon in combat and fired salutes to celebrate victories. They also began to mount elaborate fireworks displays for public festivities.

Early pyrotechnicians developed three basic gunpowder tools that still provide most of the effects we see today. First they contained the powder in a closed case. Light the case with a fuse, and the sudden burning creates gas that explodes the container. Thus the firecracker, the larger “salute,” or the bursting shells of an aerial display.

When they packed powder into a tube closed at one end, fire masters observed, hot gases, flame, and sparks rushed out the other. The result was a fountain of fire. Some of the earliest pyrotechnics, in fifteenth-century Florence and Siena, involved large plaster figures that spewed fire from their eyes and mouths. When the tube was reversed, the expanding gas gave it forward momentum, turning it into a rocket.