How Do Fireworks Actually Work?

iStock
iStock

by Sarah Dobbs

Each year, as the Fourth of July approaches, the sound of explosions starts to become a normal part of the evening. Fireworks have existed in one form or another for around 1000 years, and they show no signs of going away anytime soon. But how do they work? Most of us just know to light the fuse and stand back. Let’s take a closer look …

ROCKETS

fireworks over new york city
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Rocket-type fireworks can produce all kinds of different effects when they go off, but the basic structure of an aerial firework stays more or less the same. Each rocket is made up of the following parts: a mortar, fuses, propellant powder, a shell, a bursting charge, and a collection of "stars." The mortar is the outer container, and the fuse is, of course, the piece that you light. When the fuse burns down, the propellant ignites and shoots the firework into the air.

When it’s airborne, a second explosion is triggered inside the shell by a time delay fuse. The bursting charges set off the stars—small, explosive pellets made of fuel and metallic compounds that create the lights in the fireworks display. Different metals create different colors when they ignite: barium goes green, calcium salts go orange, magnesium goes white, copper is blue, lithium turns red, and sodium becomes gold. And the arrangement of the stars will determine the shape of the explosion—so if they’re packed in a heart shape, they should reproduce that heart shape in the sky.

Other effects can also be built in by adding various ingredients; different kinds of fuel can create sound effects, for example, like the whistling or screaming noises some rockets make as they shoot into the sky. Stars can be made up of layers of different metallic compounds, to create multicolored explosions. And in some more complex fireworks, there may be several stages of explosions; in that case, there are generally multiple fuses inside the shell, and as each burns down, a different explosive goes off.

FOUNTAINS

fountain type fireworks
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Of course, not all fireworks are of the shoot-into-the-air-and-go-bang variety. Fountains don’t take off, and generally don’t go bang, either; instead, they stay where they’re placed and give off a cascade of sparks—like a fountain, but with pyrotechnics instead of water.

Usually conical in shape, fountains consist of a paper or plastic tube, with clay plugs at either end. Inside the tube are a couple of different kinds of fuel, plus the metal compounds that create the sparks. When the fuse is lit, the fuel ignites, and sparks are forced out of an aperture in the top of the fountain.

Again, different metals create different colors and effects. Multi-stage effects can be created by bundling multiple tubes together, so that as one finishes another starts, adding different colors or sound effects to the display.

CATHERINE WHEELS

wheel firework
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Catherine wheels are another common type of firework, and again the same kinds of ingredients are used to create a slightly different effect. Named for the unfortunate Saint Catherine, these fireworks are generally fixed to a pole or a mount, so that they can spin as they burn, creating a spiral of sparks.

Bigger Catherine wheels tend to have a plastic disk at their center, with “gerbs” attached around the edge. The gerbs are similar to fountains, in that they’re tubes filled with the mixture of ingredients that create the effects; when lit, the thrust from the explosives makes the wheel turn as they burn. And again, the effect can be made more elaborate with multi-stage effects and different colors; each gerb might be different, so that the wheel changes as each one ignites in turn.

Smaller Catherine wheels might, instead, be made up of a single long, thin tube coiled into shape around a smaller central disk. Again, the thrust of ignition makes the wheel spin.

SPARKLERS

person holding sparkler
iStock

The only firework you should ever hold in your hand once it’s lit is a sparkler—a Fourth of July staple. Unlike most other fireworks, they don’t explode with a bang, but gently fizzle for around a minute, as a ball of sparks makes its way down a metal wire. And they’re pretty simple: basically, the metal wire is dipped into a pyrotechnic compound that’s made up of a metallic fuel, an oxidizer, and a binding material.

The metallic fuel is what creates the sparks; it’s usually aluminum or magnesium, which creates white sparks, but some sparklers may use iron or ferrotitanium for gold sparks instead. The oxidizer, which provides the oxygen to keep the spark going, is generally potassium nitrate. And then a binding material, a kind of flammable starch, keeps the mixture together, and burns away once the sparkler is lit.

Hopefully, none of that has taken away any of the magic of a good fireworks display. If nothing else, you’ll be able to impress your friends by quietly musing “oooh, barium” next time you see a green firework.

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What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

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iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

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How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?

iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr
iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr

Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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