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July 2001
Vol. 10, No. 07,
p 51.
The Chemist's Bookshelf
George B. Kauffman
The Chemistry of FireworksBlasting Away

The Chemistry of Fireworks
Michael S. Russell

(Royal Society of Chemistry: Cambridge, UK, 2000. 117 pp., $33.00 paperback; in U.S., Mexico, and Canada available from Springer-Verlag, New York)

Like me, many chemists were initially attracted to chemistry during our adolescent years through pyrotechnics. Indeed, the fascination with fireworks, as spectators if not as practitioners, seems almost universal among all cultures and all times. Charles V, Peter the Great, and Louis XIV were famous for their fireworks. George Plimpton, Honorary Fireworks Commissioner of New York City, holds annual fireworks displays and even wrote a book edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Fireworks: A History and Celebration (Doubleday: Garden City, NY, 1984). Yet, because new technical books on the science, which also partakes of an art, are relatively rare, this introductory paperback manual on the chemistry and physics of fireworks intended for students at the British A-level (equivalent to advanced placement in U.S. high schools) is most welcome. Although it could also be useful for college students, it contains little material not known to chemists specializing in the field (Russell admits that “it does not claim to be a definitive text on fireworks and the fireworks industry”).

The author is a chemist with expertise in research on military and marine pyrotechnics, is currently designing pyrotechnic gas generators for an international fire protection organization, and gives training courses on the safe handling of explosives. Russell confides that he was born on Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated in Great Britain with firework displays to commemorate the discovery of the conspiracy by Catholic fanatics to blow up Parliament and James I on November 5, 1605. (Some of the book’s allusions may be lost on an American audience.)

More for the Shelf
The Firework-Maker’s Daughter
Phillip Pullman. Children’s book. Arthur A. Levine, 1999

A Professional Guide to Pyrotechnics
John Donner. Palladin Press, 1997

Fireworks: The Art, Science and Technique
Takeo Shimizu. Pyrotechnica Press, 1996

Chemistry of Powder and Explosives
Tenny Davis. Angriff Press, 1972

This relatively short volume consists of a dozen chapters preceded by a useful seven-page glossary defining technical terms ranging from afterglow to wirebridge fusehead, which is helpful to American readers not familiar with British terms for various fireworks. Chapter 1 (“Historical Introduction”), summarizes pyrotechnic developments from early incendiary devices such as Greek Fire to 20th-century products. The formulation of gunpowder (“black powder”) is discussed from the beginning with its discovery by Chinese alchemists, and Roger Bacon’s contributions are considered in detail. Chapter 2 (“The Characteristics of Black Powder”) presents the chemistry of what is still the mainstay of the fireworks industry—gunpowder—and deals with the influence of thermal decomposition, ignition, and analysis; stoichiometry; volume of evolved gases; and heat and temperature of reaction.

Chapter 3 (“Rockets”) deals with internal and external ballistics, design and manufacture, and recent developments, and Chapter 4 (“Mines and Shells”) provides valuable information on these most important of display fireworks. Chapter 5 (“Fountains”) presents atomic and quantum theory, color and brightness of sparks, and particle combustion as related to these popular and festive types of fireworks. Chapters 6 through 9 (“Sparklers”, “Bangers”, “Roman Candles”, and “Gerbs and Wheels”) all deal with the construction, chemistry, and other aspects of these pyrotechnic products.

Chapter 10 (“Special Effects”) describes the formulation of fuses (quickmatch, piped match, and plastic fuse); lances (small colored flares); set-pieces and devices (assemblies of various types of fireworks linked together); flash, bang, and whistle compositions; and daylight fireworks (smoke puffs and colored smokes), along with the electric firing of displays. Chapter 11 (“Fireworks Safety”) addresses problems that can lead to injury, property damage, or even loss of life, and Chapter 12 (“Fireworks Legislation”) discusses both older and more recent regulations but is limited to those passed in the United Kingdom.

Replete with figures, tables, diagrams, photographs, chemical and mathematical equations, a bibliography of 20 books and articles dating from 1943 to 1998, and a six-page, double-column index, this concise book unfortunately contains a number of errors in text and equations. With this caveat in mind, it still is a useful primer or supplemental text for students and a handy reference source for fireworks aficionados.

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