Over a thousand years ago, Chinese alchemists created an early form of gunpowder. Made primarily of potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal, the ingredients were packed into bamboo shoots and thrown into the fire. The idea was that the subsequent explosion of noise and light would ward off evil spirits.
A millennium later, we use this same basic concept to paint the night sky with a myriad of patterns and colours for pure enjoyment. The practise is so integral to our collective sense of celebration that barely an eyelid is batted at the $45,000 per minute price tag attached to the iconic Sydney Harbour new years fireworks.
And therein lies the beauty of the craft. No matter how old you are, fireworks still manage to capture our imagination and sense of wonderment. Even when you work in the industry.
Gizmodo’s Light and Motion series is brought to you by Mazda CX-3. Celebrating motion as an art form, with, Mazda’s signature ‘KODO – Soul of Motion’ design philosophy capturing the striking beauty of movement.
“I think there is a sense of magic and mystique about it all. Only a few select people know how it works,” says Andrew Howard, the director of Howard & Sons Pyrotechnics – one of oldest fireworks companies in Australia. Not only do they have almost a century of expertise, but a family legacy. Andrew and his brother Christian are fourth generation pyrotechnicians. Lighting up the night sky has been the family business since 1922.
It all began with their great-grandather, an engineer at BHP Steelworks in Newcastle. After witnessing the reactions of the different metals and chemicals, such as sparks and colours, he decided to follow his passion for fireworks.
“He started buying them from England,” says Howard. “But by the time that they got to Australia, after travelling on boats and getting wet, a lot of them were duds. So he just started making them himself.”
The Howard’s involvement in the fireworks business has been closely intertwined with monumental moments in Australian history, and helped shaped our relationship with the artform.
Their family was behind a large portion of the fireworks from the Sydney Harbour Bridge Opening, as well as those used to celebrate royal visits. They also filtered down into the everyday lives of Australians as well – who would purchase them to celebrate the Queens Birthday weekend or Guy Fawkes night.
Of course, times and regulations have changed now. Kids can no longer buy fireworks from their local corner store. However, Australian’s continued fascination and the importance placed on fireworks has remained integral to wider community celebrations.
“Fireworks still bring people together. We gather around a harbour, a river, in the cities or even small country towns to watch the fireworks displays that we put on now.”
One of the most stunning aspects of the craft is that, despite the world becoming increasingly digital, the science of fireworks has remained largely the same. The raw ingredients remain unchanged.
“A lot of the fundamental elements of fireworks haven’t really changed. That basic mix of gunpowder hasn’t at all,” Howard explains. “It’s been refined and improved, a bit like most things in modern day life, but it hasn’t changed. It’s more about how we have refined it, changed it, used it in different environments, adapted technology to it, and added new colours to it.”
Technology has of course played a hand in modernising the practise. Fireworks can now be designed, produced and fired by computers. But the physicality endures to this day, particularly when it comes to creating patterns. The pyrotechnic stars, which are the tiny pellets of chemical positions, have to be placed in a certain way inside the shell of the firework. The bursting charge is then placed in the middle so everything bursts out evenly.
“That’s probably one of the elements that I love about it too. It is such a real, real industry. It’s not a virtual industry,” says Howard. “It’s something that is really quite raw in its chemistry and its physics of black powder. It’s a very measured and specific science but it’s not an exact science, there’s always an element of risk.”
From the trajectory of the mortar tubes to the amount of gunpowder used – it all contributes to the potential success or failure of a firework. They’re the same challenges that pyrotechnicians have been having for a millennium, and there’s something quite beautiful in that kind of enduring industry legacy.
Of course, there has been room for digitisation in the realm of modern fireworks, and the Howard family have been at the forefront of this technological product development. The fundamentals of fireworks may not have changed much, but they have become huge scale productions with many collaborative parts. And require strict safety checks . In this way, Howards have helped develop a way to minimise risk during the design process.
“The state-of-the-art technology that we use today enables us to create a video animation in scale of the exact fireworks display we’ve designed prior to the display. So you could show it to one of the pyrotechnicians involved to see what it is we’ve designed, how it’s to shoot and why the show’s set up in the way that it has.
We’re able to show it to our clients and also the production teams involved in these large scale events. We’re can show it to government authorities so they can see how the display is going to work. We can also share it with other people involved, like the lighting designer of the event or the music composer and everybody can collaborate together to give their input in relation to what they would like to see different in the show or how we could adjust it.”
In a way, the Howard family reflect the evolution of humanities relationship with fireworks. Particularly here in Australia. Times may have changed, technology may have evolved, but we still stare up at the explosions in the sky the same way our predecessors did.
“One of the most memorable moments in my career was we did a pyro-musical in the main arena at the Royal Easter Show back in the late ’90s, which was very state-of-the-art show at the time. Everything was computer fired.
“My grandfather, who was quite elderly at the time, came along and watched it from the edge of the arena. He was infused with amazement at how we do things today. It gave me a great sense of everything that has evolved through our family history and through technology and how we’re using it today. It was a complete circle of where we’ve come from and where we are.”