How Do Fireworks Work?

By Vivian El-Salawy on July 4, 2017

Every 4th of July, you see fireworks bursting at lakes, fields, or your neighbors’ homes – but have you ever wondered about the history of fireworks? Think about all of the different kinds of fireworks you have seen – the green and blue ones, the white ones that sparkle slowly, the blue and white ones that sneak up out of nowhere. Every firework has its form and color for a specific reason.

When were fireworks first invented?

Image via The First

The earliest documentation of fireworks date back to 7th century China, during the Tang Dynasty. According to Phantom Fireworks, there is a legend that claims that fireworks were actually invented on accident by a Chinese cook who mixed charcoal, Sulphur, and saltpeter in the kitchen. These were not uncommon ingredients to be found in the kitchen at that time.

What are fireworks made of?

A firework are composed of gunpowder. Traditionally, Explain That Stuff reports that 75% of the gunpowder used in fireworks is composed of potassium nitrate mixed with 15% charcoal and 10% sulfur. Modern fireworks have different chemical compositions at times.

How do they work?

Aerial fireworks, or fireworks that you see light up the sky, have five main parts to them:

Image via Explain That Stuff

Stick (or tail)

This is the long stick-like structure that comes out from the bottom of the firework. It serves two different purposes: the first is to direct the firework in a specific direction so it doesn’t fly in a random direction or cause any harmful damage and the second is to help users position the firework (which also helps with direction and accuracy).


This one is self-explanatory, but it is the part of the firework that is used to start the main part of the firework. It ignites other smaller fuses that give the firework its color. The main fuse is made of out paper of fabric – something that is flammable typically. Sometimes at firework shows, fireworks are lit up by the touch of a button. This is because by pressing the button, fuses are lit by electrical contacts such as wirebridge fuseheads.

Charge (or motor)

The charge is what gives a firework its “oomph”, so to speak. It’s what shoots the firework into the air, sometimes up to several hundred meters. If you haven’t noticed already, the elements that go into a firework are structured in the order that you see things happen in the sky, which brings us to the next component.


This is the fun part – the display of a firework comes from this part of the firework. A firework can have one to multiple different effects that are packaged into separate compartments. This is what defines the shapes, colors, and types of sparks you see in a firework. Sometimes they can be simpler, other times they can be more complex – all in one explosion


This is the very top of the firework. Sometimes, it is shaped as a “nose cone” to help the firework be more aerodynamic and shoot straight up, as opposed to sideways. However, many fireworks are simply flat on the top as well.

How do they get their color?

Image via Earth Sky

Planet-science explains that the different colors you see in fireworks are derived from burning metal salts. By burning different types of metal salts, you get different color flames. For instance, if you took a spoon of table salt and burned it, you would get a yellow flame. Lithium makes an orange flame, Copper makes a green flame, Potassium makes a purple flame, and so on. By sprinkling iron into the flame, you get sparkles that look exactly like what your sparklers do when you light them.

Now that you know a little more about the mechanics of a firework, hopefully the next time you seem them burst in the sky, it will mean a little more than what it already does. Have a safe 4th of July and Happy Independence Day!

Vivian El-Salawy is a graduate of Florida State University with a B.A. in Editing, Writing, and Media with minors in Slavic (Russian) Studies and Communications. Alongside writing for Uloop News, WVFS Tallahassee 89.7 FM, and editing for the Good Life Community magazine, she is heavily involved with a Tau Beta Sigma, a national honorary sorority that promotes women in the band profession.

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