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History of fireworks dates back thousands of years

Fireworks explode in the night sky Saturday, July 4, 2015, during the Minnesota State University Moorhead Fourth of July celebration at the Bluestem Center for the Arts in Moorhead, Minn. David Samson / Forum News Service file photo

MOORHEAD — Watermelon juice drips down sticky fingers and parents wrangle their children out of the streets as shower mists of mosquito spray coat every inch of exposed skin. Blankets are spread out as dusk begins to creep over the fields, streets and lakes.

Pop. Boom. Crackle, crackle. Whisssstle. Hisssss.

The pinnacle moment of the holiday celebration is almost here. Nothing screams summer like the sights and sounds of our nation's birthday celebration on Wednesday, July 4.

These colorful fireballs have dazzled for thousands of years. Originally created in ninth century China to ward off evil spirits, Americans decided to join the party before America was a country.

Founding father and second president John Adams wrote in a July 3, 1776, letter to his wife that the occasion (signing the Declaration of Independence) should be commemorated with "illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more."

Fireworks were officially used for the first time as a commemoration of Independence Day on July 4, 1777, and have been used here ever since. But what goes into creating the spectacular displays that are a highlight of the summer?

Building a firework begins with something more suited for Halloween than for the Fourth of July: a skeleton. Well, if the firework you're setting off is in Minnesota, that is.

Ground display shapes are created by building a skeleton of the desired shape, followed by wiring the skeleton with colored pyrotechnics. But Minnesota's laws against personal use of consumer-grade fireworks put a dampener on the party, unless you want thousands of people to gather around a few sparklers.

The big, commercial fireworks are made just a little bit differently.

Dan Creagan, media coordinator for Pyrotechnics Guild International with more than 15 years of experience building and shooting fireworks, said it all starts with the chemicals.

"The chemistry of fireworks has improved dramatically since the 1900s," Creagan says. "The availability of different chemicals to produce colors has created the ability to display almost anything in the air."

All fireworks need two things to work: a chemical that is rich in oxygen and fuel.

Nearly the entire range of colors is produced with some version of chemical salts made from a metal and one or more other ingredient. The main colors of fireworks are blue (copper chloride), yellow (sodium nitrate), green (barium chloride), red (strontium carbonate) and white (titanium), and can be combined with one another to create an almost infinite number of shades.

Once the ingredients are combined, they are pressed into a cylindrical mold to get ready to dazzle — after being burned at several thousand degrees.

Aerial shells can be made to represent basic shapes. Hearts, smiley faces, rings and even acronyms can be created with different star colors represented to make the light show we all know. Like any projectile, the mass of the stars determines how high in the sky they will go before they explode.

There is a lot that goes into creating the spectacular shows we come to expect each Fourth, and most of it doesn't originate in the home of the brave.

"Since about 1980, the world's commercial fireworks production has slowly migrated to China," Creagan says. "Today, there are only a few companies in the United States that make fireworks commercially and those companies are extremely specialized."

Creagan says most big companies have contracts with Chinese companies to make custom fireworks and ship them here.

"The visualization and implementation of the fireworks are usually determined here, but made there," Creagan says.

For the big displays on the holiday, a company may create unique displays in advance and order the product in from China. Planning may start as early as two years in advance, almost always beginning at least several months prior to the event. This means the show you watch on Wednesday could have been in the works since last year's fireworks show.

A large fireworks display is like a stage production, complete with choreographers, writers, scripts, directors, stagehands, technicians, production heads, assistants and sponsors. The names for these roles can differ, but in every case, a big fireworks event is an entertainment production that requires significant planning and resources.

"Basic planning for one of our shows starts about two to three years out with detailed planning and work commencing about eight months before the show," Creagan says. "Like all stage plays, things happen — sometimes on the very night of the production — so it can be hectic and very exciting."

Emma Vatnsdal

Emma Vatnsdal is a Features writer, focused on telling stories about people, places and all the interesting things that come along with it. She earned her degree in multimedia journalism from Minnesota State University Moorhead and joined the Forum Communications team in 2018. She grew up in the far north town of Roseau, Minn. and has a thick Minnesotan-Canadian accent. Follow her on Twitter @emmajeaniewenie.

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