Finding the Art in Everything

04 July, 2010

F is for Fireworks

I've wanted to work in pyrotechnics since high school. My dad blames my high school chem teacher, Mr. Griffiths.

Griff was truly great. I had him only one or two years before he retired. Instead of languishing in the classroom, boring students and biding his time, he chose to blow things up. When I met him, he had no eyebrows because he had blown the windows out of the lab trying to make rocket fuel.

It's hard not to love a teacher whose demonstrations were too epic for even the fume hood. In the dead of Minnesota winter, Griff took us outside for "the important" demonstrations.

I can't even remember the principles he was illustrating with some of his biggest explosions. I think it's only the teacher in me now that extends him benefit of the doubt and assumes he even had some. But I do remember the lab that is the chemical rite of passage--the unknown element with the flame tests. We had copper--that most identifiable of elements that burns a bluish green.

After that, I was hooked. How could my calling be anything other than that of artistic explosions?? Put to music? Every year, on the Fourth of July, I'm inspired. I become convinced I've missed my calling.

Dad has never shared my convictions. When I went to far as to change my major to chemistry and seek an pyrotechnics internship, he threatened to end his support of my academic career. I have all of my fingers and toes to show for his wisdom.

As you watch the displays tonight, enjoy the greatest of flame tests. Say thanks to your chemistry teacher for inspiring and training the pyrotechnicians, and say thanks to all the dads who kept the rest of us from practicing.

And for your chemistry fun, here is a table of elements and colors, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chemistry Department:

Also, you can check out the PBS Nova site on the anatomy of fireworks.

Color Compound Wavelength (nm)

strontium salts, lithium salts
lithium carbonate, Li2CO3 = red
strontium carbonate, SrCO3 = bright red



calcium salts
calcium chloride, CaCl2



sodium salts
sodium chloride, NaCl



barium compounds + chlorine producer
barium chloride, BaCl2



copper compounds + chlorine producer
copper(I) chloride, CuCl


mixture of strontium (red) and
copper (blue) compounds

silver burning aluminum, titanium, or magnesium

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