Playing With Fire

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Finally, fire masters learned to ram a projectile down on top of the powder in those same closed-end pipes. Tonight that tool, the gun, in the form of hundreds of cardboard, plastic, and steel mortars, will hurl aloft the thousands of aerial fireworks we’ll be seeing.

A pyrotechnician’s work begins months before the summer season. During the winter Frank Coluccio applies himself to the exacting and repetitive work of constructing shells, the innocuous-looking “bombs” that yield the color, sound, and glitter of a display. Purchased shells can be more economical, but Coluccio prefers to use traditional custom-built ones in his shows.

“Five years ago we made 80 percent of our shells,” explains Legion’s vice president, Jennie Bradford, a compact and energetic woman of thirty-six. “Now, because fireworks from Asia have gotten so cheap, probably 60 percent of our shows consist of highquality shells that we purchase, mostly from China.”

RENAISSANCE pyrotechnicians developed three basic tools that provide most of the effects we see today.
 
 

The Legion plant is tucked unobtrusively into a seventeen-acre site near the Hudson River, seventy miles north of New York City. The work goes on in thirty-three small and widely spaced buildings, which include storage magazines, drying rooms, and workshops. Air-powered or hydraulic presses are used for a few operations, but much of the construction of fireworks is still carried out by hand. No better method has been found.

Bradford and Coluccio are Legion’s only full-time employees; they hire a cadre of experienced “shooters” to help fire shows during the summer. They also buy shells from master shell builders like David Datres, a fifty-two-year-old railroad-communications cable splicer who has long pursued pyrotechnics as a sideline.

One of Datres’s specialties is the charcoal “crossette,” or splitting comet shell. He shows me how he packs comets, small cylinders of charcoal-rich composition, into the cardboard cylinder that will carry them aloft. Each comet contains a tiny firecracker that will blow it apart, multiplying the effect of golden trails of sparks. “This is really a labor of love,” he says. “I make them the way the old Italians used to.” The technology for shells of this type can be traced back into the sixteenth century.

Timing is everything in fireworks. With each shell he makes, Datres carefully measures and arranges the ingredients to produce a calculated pattern in the sky. He wraps the whole shell in glued paper and string, securing it against the force of the explosion that will send it flying. “I once put together a shell for a competition,” he says, ›that took me sixty hours to construct. It went off in twelve seconds.”

Mixing the volatile flash powder that gives salutes their bang is the most dangerous task in any fireworks firm. At Legion it’s carried out on humid days in the spring and fall to minimize the threat from static electricity. “We realize the danger,” Coluccio says. “That’s why we’re conscious of safety every minute we’re working.”

In their beginnings fireworks were not the center of a spectacle. They served as theatrical effects during pageants involving dragons, giants, and enchanted islands. The Italians, who first developed fireworks in Europe and have maintained an affinity for the art ever since, built elaborate facades—called temples or machines— whose porticoes and columns served as backdrops for the pyrotechnic fountains, rockets, and Roman candles that illuminated saints’ days or other religious festivals.

The eighteenth century ushered in the golden age of classical fireworks. In the early 1700s the Ruggieri brothers, whose name would become synonymous with the craft, moved from their native Bologna to France and became fire masters to the court of Louis XV, mounting increasingly opulent spectacles at Versailles. During his sojourn in Paris, Thomas Jefferson saw displays mounted by the Ruggieris.

Fireworks arrived in America as early as 1608, when Capt. John Smith “fired a few rockets” to impress the natives during the difficult days of the Jamestown colony. At the time of the Revolution John Adams, in a letter to his wife, predicted that the signing of the Declaration of Independence would be celebrated with “bonfires and illuminations from this time forward forevermore.” While “illuminations” is sometimes taken to mean fireworks, it’s more likely that he was referring to the custom, before streetlights were common, of illuminating buildings and public squares with candles in windows and on walls. But pyrotechnics soon did become a Fourth of July institution. Skyrockets filled the air over Newport in 1781, and Boston put on its first full-scale Independence Day fireworks display in 1805.