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Amanda Taylor, LLB (Hons.), Barrister, studying for LLM Entertainment Law at University of Westminster

June 2004

To enjoy a firework show to its full extent requires the onlooker to know the correct 'technical terms' and when to use them. 'Oohhh' and 'aahhh' are those words and it is doubtful that anyone can remember being taught how and when to say them but intuitively they will know. Fireworks have entertained for well over 1000 years1 as it is thought that the Chinese invented the basic mixture of sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre, enclosed it in a hollow bamboo shoot and watched the colourful explosion when it was lit2 Not being satisfied with pure enjoyment the Chinese realised that the noise would scare off evil spirits and also work as a suitable celebratory device for important religious ceremonies. The theme of this essay is to show the technological improvement that has evolved throughout the history of the firework, not so much in the mixture of compounds that create the bang and colour, but the ability to achieve fantastic displays with only the press of a button.

In the U.K. the most well known date on the calendar for lighting fireworks is November 5th being the commemoration of the day Guy Fawkes tried to blow up James 1 while he was in The Houses of Parliament in 1605. Mr Fawkes and fellow conspirators plotted against the Crown in the name of religion as James' persecution of non-Protestants was not easily accepted by the religiously divided country. Gunpowder was probably brought into England in the 1200s. Fireworks were used in 1486 to celebrate the wedding of Henry VII; and Elizabeth 1 was so enthusiastic she created a post of 'Fire Master of England'2 It seems logical then to conclude that, with such use in previous years, by 1605 the knowledge was available on how to use gunpowder in a relatively safe manner. It is reported3 that Guy Fawkes had the facility of a slow burning fuse with which to ignite the gunpowder kegs, thus giving him time to escape. Perhaps because the plan was thwarted, and all the plotters executed, it gave cause for jubilation and so the date became remembered and has given the country much pain, worry and pleasure in the years that followed.

The Fireworks Act 2003 is the first major legislative work on the subject since 1875 Explosives Act. It has been found difficult to police storage of fireworks by the public as the old laws allowed storage of up to 5kgs of fireworks for an unlimited time, or an unlimited quantity of fireworks for up to fourteen days prior to their use. Restrictions on the sale of fireworks have been slightly more efficient but still it is widely recognised that children under eighteen have been able to buy without too much trouble4. In 2001 injuries caused by fireworks numbered 1,362, a 40% increase on 2000.5 The Government has promised to assess the success of the new Act after the 2004/5 season has ended.6 Hopefully the new law will reduce the harm and worry fireworks cause many groups including the elderly, the timid and family pets. The pyrotechnics industry has grown in response to the need for added safety and the seemingly insatiable appetite the public has to be entertained by noise, smoke and colour.

Fireworks are big business in many countries although the U.K. is a relative junior in the league as there seems to be a lack of interest in competing in international firework competitions. Around the world there are many such events; in Valencia each year for a week in March the festival of the Fallas is celebrated. Fireworks are set off at 2p.m. in the town square; each day a different family competing to make the loudest noise, which is measured on a decibel meter. At that time of day, patently, the colour of the fireworks is not so important but the smoke that is generated is exciting in that it blots out even the hottest Spanish sun. Each evening aerial shows set in the dried out river bed amaze the assembled crowd, again a competition between rival families. The week is a culmination of a year's work as giant papier-mâché edifices that have been crafted during the year are burned on the final evening. The Spanish love noise and fireworks and take the Fallas very seriously.

To produce such shows in such a tight time scale each day takes a phenomenal amount of time, effort and care. To aid their task the displays are produced using electric firing systems. Such systems 'allow the pyrotechnician to fire single or multiple devices in a more precise manner from a remote location'. The more precise manner became an important feature of all firework displays as the public's expectations increased. In years past a programme lasting forty minutes was not unusual, but now more fireworks fired with more precision and visual impact will probably only last twenty minutes. This may sound like a retrograde step to the viewer but, since the firing is now done with the help of computers, obviously the time taken to 'light' each element has reduced the waiting time in between each pop and bang, thus producing a more professional, well choreographed, performance. On 31st December 1999 the U.K. was not alone in celebrating the forthcoming new year. London, Sydney, Paris, Washington7 and Dubai were, inter alia, venues of magnificent Millennium shows featuring dazzling displays of explosions, costing small fortunes and entertaining thousands of people. It seemed that nearly the whole world had agreed that this was a suitable way to celebrate. In order to carry out such a feat the pyrotechnicians did not rely on one man with a match lighting fuses. Yet again, the importance of electric firing was proved.

One electronic firing system, NoMatch, provided a fuse system that contained no gunpowder but instead used a small amount of high-explosive powder to transfer a super-sonic shockwave to groups of fireworks.8 The system had many bonuses including the safety aspect and the ability to use the system in conjunction with an SMPTE9 time code enabling fireworks to be synchronised with lasers in multimedia shows. Computers are further used to calculate launch times and firing scripts thus leaving the designer free to get on with his main task, that of designing spectacular shows. With the use of the scripting software, music is transformed to a visual display looking like a wave. With this format the designer can then interpret crescendos and silences to maximum effect by matching them with suitable fireworks. The finalised script can then be transformed into technical specifications that will in turn become the data for the display. Without such technology the complexity of the shows would not be possible.

Unfortunately, electric firing is not without problems. One difficulty the designer of NoMatch came across was a legal one in that the explosives used to fire the fuse did not appear on the authorised UN numbers list of explosives. To comply with the HSE regulations the explosives have to go through a reclassification process, which means time, effort, and loss of publicity and use until it has happened. The various regulations, even though not strictly legally enforceable, appear to be completely sensible and in line with the industry as a whole. It seems strange therefore, that there is an exemption certificate available to counteract one of the main safety requirements, the 1997 Firework Fusing Exemption. This allows small display operators to fuse the fireworks prior to their transportation to the firing site. The certificate seems to be a mere formality as small display operators do fuse the fireworks beforehand anyway, in direct conflict with the Explosives Acts. The certificate appears to be a 'tidying up' of an illegal situation the law realised they could not police satisfactorily.

Other problems encountered with electronic matches include safety and working conditions. To most uninitiated people it would seem obvious that electric firing was safer than holding a naked flame to an explosive devise. However, it seems that the electric match heads are friction, impact and static sensitive meaning that rough handling, or adverse weather conditions could result in unplanned ignition which could lead to a potentially deadly situation for the operator. Some shows11 are staged near to computer controlled water fountains adding to the technician's problems as the firing system is not inherently waterproof. In the U.K., of course, fountains may prove less problematical than the naturally occurring, seemingly endless, rain falls. Electric matches are also sensitive to stray currents from poorly insulated electrical equipment and to radio frequencies. It is entirely possible that a mobile phone frequency could ignite an e-match. It seems odd that, as one technology progresses, it becomes a potential liability to technology in other fields.

It can be seen, even from this very brief study, that fireworks are a subject full of chemistry, electronics and computer expertise. Although most of the technological advances have occurred in the firing systems there have also been improvements in the complexity of firework patterns and the density and scope of colours available. According to Dr John Conkling12 some of the greatest innovations in fireworks are made by amateurs, many of whom belong to the PGI. This is amazing, as world-wide the firework industry must generate thousand of pounds worth of revenue and employ many people. Strange then that such a large employer relies so heavily on amateurs.

Fireworks are a source of much enjoyment and excitement to many. Not everyone is a fan of the noise and show but the technology behind the firing gives the public more than they may realise. Not only do they have the ability to make a party go with a bang, literally, with party poppers, but their lives are saved with the aid of air bags fitted into many cars and flares used by mariners as distress signals. Like much of modern life, the ability to use the technology available is only limited by the imagination. The ability to put on a show high in the sky that will entertain huge audiences with the press of one button is not only impressive but slightly worrying. Didn't someone once say there would be no more hand to hand fighting in wars, it would all be done with the press of a button?


1 Wilson, Elizabeth. What's that stuff? Fireworks.

2 History of Fireworks.

3 The Gunpowder Plot.

4 Southwark Council Website.

5 Hughes, Sarah. Jim Dobbin MP explains his fireworks Bill. Manchester OnLine News.

6 Cranston, Ross. Government tells MP it will assess new fireworks law. Found at

7 Dyer, Nicola; Fireworks Grow Up! (new firework technology)

8 Information from NoMatch distributor Sam Woodward in (email 7th March 2004)

9 Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

10 Information from British Pyrotechnists' Association and Explosive Industry Group Firework Handbook 2000/2001

11 Longwood Gardens, Fireworks History. How it's Done. History.htm


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