Fireworks 411: How Are Shapes Created?

FireworksWe all love to ooh and aah at the various shaped and colored fireworks, but have you ever wondered how all that brilliance is packaged in one cylindrical tube?

With their overpowering noise and their glittering color, firework shows are just plain impressive. One little spark zips up into the night sky and explodes into a burst of color and light, falling back toward earth much more slowly than it ascended.

And while the willow tree-shaped explosives are enough to impress, firework displays have become even more enticing with the ability to create different shapes or symbols. Now smiley faces, hearts and stars pop out at us, adding to the overall effect.

Have you ever wondered how these fireworks are made, how someone can ensure that, upon its explosion, a firework will emit a spray of sparks shaped like a smiley face? Well, there’s actually quite a science to it.

Though fireworks are assumed to have been around for the past 2,000 years, having originated in China as exploding pieces of bamboo, the ability to code a shape into one is a much more recent science. In fact, it is thought that the first time they were used in the United States was in the 1990s.

In order to create a shape, each little dot, also called a star or a burst, is wrapped individually and then packed into the aerial cardboard shell around a central fuse. In an interview with,  Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, further explained how these stars are glued to cardboard inserts to ensure that they burst properly.

“If you insert a piece of cardboard into the shell (or the outer cardboard tube) and then arrange the stars in a pattern around that, the cardboard insert forces the stars to explode outward in that pattern,” she explains.

One interesting fact about the use of specifically shaped fireworks is that, when lighting one off, there’s no way to know at which angle it will actually explode, making it impossible to decipher whether or not the audience will actually see the shape from the front or whether it will just look like a regular firework. For this reason, pyrotechnicians commonly light a several patterned shells at once to be sure at least one hits at the right angle for the audience.

According to a Newsweek article, the record for the largest fireworks show in history is currently held by Dubai for the opening of the Atlantis Hotel in 2008. The display lasted eight and a half minutes, occurred in 50 locations at once, took the skill of 97 pyrotechnicians and cost a whopping $2.7 million.