Playing With Fire

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By the end of the 1700s most of the effects we see today were in common use. In the air, shells, known in those days as balloons, burst into patterns of fire, sparks, and darting “fisgigs.” Many types of rockets soared skyward, including the caduceus, which left behind a spiral trail. On the ground, fire masters set off fountains, suns, and trees of flame. Spectators also witnessed rockets that leaped in and out of the water like dolphins and wheels that metamorphosed through fifteen patterns. An early treatise gives directions for producing “silver and gold raine” by filling thousands of goose quills with powder and packing them into the head of a rocket.

What classical fireworks lacked was color. Granulated charcoal left a trail of lingering orange sparks. Iron filings glowed white. Chemical additions like amber could tint flames with pastels, but the deep and varied colors that we enjoy today were unknown.

During much of the early history of fireworks, pyrotechnicians relied on skyrockets as a mainstay of their shows. Rockets carry their fuel with them, leaving a brilliant trail of sparks as they soar into the sky. When the fuel is spent, the rocket’s “garniture” explodes, setting off reports and a spray of stars or serpents. But skyrockets are not often used in commercial shows today. They carry a smaller payload than shells shot from a gun, and their trajectory is less predictable. Moreover, they require the weight of long wooden shafts to keep on course, and these sticks present a danger as they fall.

Legion still fires smaller shows by hand, in the manner of traditional fuochisti . I watched Frank Coluccio set off a display in the little town of Coxsackie, on the edge of the Hudson River. Some of the shells were loaded into mortars in advance, including those for the finale, which filled a long row of guns, the fuses chaining one shell to the next. The rest were laid out under a fireproof tarp, ready to be dropped singly into mortars.

HAND-FIRING has dangers: Fuses leave the shooter little time to get clear; a “low break” can spray the ground with burning stars.
 

Coluccio extracts one of the shells and lowers it by its fuse down a steel tube about three and a half feet long. As he lets it go, he touches the fuse to a flare. The fire races down to a measured sack of gunpowder at the bottom of the shell. This lift charge explodes with a hollow “thwomp!” During the four seconds the shell takes to reach a height of six hundred feet, a time fuse burns down, finally reaching the burst charge inside. The shell explodes, flinging stars outward in a spherical pattern. The stars are nuggets of chemicals that burn with a colored flame, sometimes changing hues before they die out.

The variety of rich colors that we know today began to appear in the 1830s. Descendants of the Ruggieri brothers were among the first to make stars using potassium chlorate, which causes metal salts to glow with distinctive hues. Salts of copper yield blue, those of strontium red, barium green, and so on. Fire workers also used newly refined metals to brighten their effects, beginning with magnesium in the 1860s. By the end of the century powdered aluminum was offering an inexpensive brilliance. “Its advent opened a new era of the art,” wrote the English pyrotechnician Alan St. Hill Brock.

Hand-firing a show has built-in dangers. Fuses burn quickly, leaving the shooter little time to get away from the mortar before the formidable explosion that lifts the shell. Sometimes shells blow up before reaching their intended height, a “low break” that sprays the ground with burning stars. Shooters have been killed when a spark touched off a shell they were preparing to drop into a mortar.

At Coxsackie, before half the shells have been fired, drops of rain begin to splatter on the parking lot that separates the spectators from the shooting area. In minutes it’s pouring. The wet-dust smell of a summer shower mixes with the tang of gunpowder. The show goes on. By the end a crowd of soaked spectators cheers an ear-shattering finale that challenges the storm itself.

Rain has always been a worry for fireworks artists. On the Fourth of July in 1876 a massive display was slated for Fairmont Park in Philadelphia to celebrate the nation’s centennial. A huge crowd gathered in the sultry evening. As darkness fell, a thunder-storm boiled over. The pyrotechnicians knew they had no choice. According to a contemporary account, “The whole range of fireworks, including temples, gigantic portraits of Washington, mounds, volcanoes, stars, patriotic mottoes, pyramids, and other structures, all on a scale never before seen in America, must be discharged at once or never discharged at all.” The audience was “stilled and entranced” by the short but stupendous spectacle.