Geological Fireworks: The Science Behind 4th of July Spectacles

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Fireworks! Colorful, vibrant bursts that ignite the sky with celebration! They just wouldn’t be possible without geology. Let’s learn about geological fireworks: the science behind the 4th of July spectacles.Geological Fireworks: The Science Behind 4th of July Spectacles

Metals are a Type of Mineral

Metals are a type of mineral, and they’re a significant aspect of geology. They have properties that benefit our bodies nutritionally, that’s for sure. Several of them are simply beautiful to collect and admire for their uniqueness, and to remind us of the creativity of our Creator God. However, that’s not all we can enjoy about metals. As individuals have learned to govern their use in a variety of ways they have figured out how to create something beautiful that multiple individuals can enjoy all at one time—the spectacular display of fireworks. Displays that developed over centuries. Let’s take a quick jaunt through history as we get down to the color science of fireworks.

The Original Creators of Fireworks

Historians attribute the Chinese with the invention of fireworks; they have reason to believe they go as far back as the second century B.C. in ancient Liuyang, China. In fact, “[i]t is believed that the first natural “firecrackers” were bamboo stalks that when thrown in a fire, would explode with a bang because of the overheating of the hollow air pockets in the bamboo. The Chinese believed these natural “firecrackers” would ward off evil spirits.(1)

Chinese alchemists combined potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal, resulting in an early form of gunpowder. The resulting color of that mixed powder was black. The firework pop was there, but color and aerial display were yet to arrive on the scene.

Europe Advance Firework Displays

A New Field of Science

With the advent of fireworks, a new field was created: Pyrotechnician. This is a career in the art of fireworks which combines both science and art. Additionally, it is a field of imagination because it entails creative application of science and art for firework displays.

Italy’s Contribution to the History of Fireworks

In the 13th century, the idea of fireworks made its way to Italy. Historians attribute the Italians, in the 15th century, with being the first to manufacture fireworks. By this time, they were dull gold displays of light.

France’s Contribution to the History of Fireworks

  • Dramatic Displays

Key individuals who further developed fireworks were among the Ruggieri family. This family moved to France from Italy in 1739. They were pyrotechnicians for King Louis XV. The Ruggieri family is who created theatrical aspects to firework displays.

  • Brighter Displays

With fireworks in France, French chemist, Claude Louis Berthollet discovered how to make fireworks burn brighter. In 1787, he discovered potassium chlorate. Remember that before this discovery, fireworks were a dull gold. However, potassium chlorate is a powerful oxidizer and that is the key reason behind having bright fireworks.

Fireworks Come to America

It’s in the year 1730 that fireworks make their way to the American Colonies. This is when they’re displayed for all to see in celebration of America’s Independence. And this tradition was started thanks to John Adams. In fact, he wrote the following to his wife Abigail in a letter:

“This day will be most memorable in the history of America,” he predicted. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival… It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade… bonfires and illuminations [fireworks]… from one end of this content to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”(3)

Colorful Fireworks are Invented

The baton of development passed back to the Italians, and in the early 1800’s they discovered how to make colorful fireworks by combining chlorinated powder and particular metallic salts, a result of the science of color.

The Science of Color and Fireworks

The following is a list of metallic salts and the color each produces:

  • strontium = red
  • calcium = red
  • barium = green
  • copper = blue
  • sodium = yellow
  • titanium = white
  • potassium = purple

Of course, using potassium chlorate as an oxidizer makes the hues brighter.

In particular, there must be a proper mixture of chemicals to produce the desired effect. It takes a certain amount of energy to excite electrons and give various colors of light. Additionally, there must be a proper combination to maintain the right temperature and wavelength for the desired color. With that in mind, blue is the most challenging color to achieve because a certain high temperature needs to be stable to produce it.

We hope your family enjoys honoring God’s principle of Liberty, and the beautiful displays of fireworks during Independence Day celebrations. Furthermore, we hope you are thankful to God for the truth, beauty, and goodness on display because of His creative and wise design. Have a safe and happy Independence Day!

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1: History of Fireworks, American Pyrotechnics Association,

2: European Fireworks in the 18th and 19th Century, by By Megan Finely, Curatorial Assistant, Thu, Jul 01, 2021 at 12:45AM, Museum of Arts and Sciences,

3: Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, p. 3,

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