SI Vault
George Plimpton
June 30, 1975
...bombs bursting in air have long made the Fourth of July a star-spangled festivity, but few can hold a Roman candle to the author in knowing the facts and fancy about fireworks
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June 30, 1975

And The Rocket's Red Glare

...bombs bursting in air have long made the Fourth of July a star-spangled festivity, but few can hold a Roman candle to the author in knowing the facts and fancy about fireworks

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"What are fireworks like?" she had asked....

"They are like the Aurora Borealis," said the King, "only much more natural. I prefer them to stars myself, as you always know when they are going to appear...."

The Remarkable Rocket

The great thing was to do it yourself—just the nudge of a lighted punk to a fuse, a small commitment that seemed so insignificant, and yet the result was so decisive and visible...the sudden puff of a colored ball emerging from the long tube of a Roman candle, the quick rush and fading hiss of a rocket, the popping busyness of lawn fountains that smoked and sputtered and sent the family cat scurrying under the porch. Anyone could do it. Fireworks provided a sort of equalizer, especially for those who were not good at sports and knew they were doomed to spend the long summer afternoons in the far reaches of right field. They, too, on the Fourth of July had the capacity to create something just as satisfactory as a base hit—and make a big racket about it besides—with only the requirement of nerve enough to approach the brightly papered device on the lawn to set it off.

The next best was when evening came, and out beyond the band shell in the park the professionals went to work with their show—mysterious shapes moving in the twilight out where finally a red flare would glow—and the commemoration would get under way of the day that John Adams, on July 3, 1776, 24 hours before the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted, wrote would be "celebrated by succeeding be solemnized with Pomp and Parade...Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other, from this Time forward forevermore."

Fireworks have always been a traditional means of observing triumphant occasions. As far back as 1532, Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, had "fireworkers" in his army (as distinct from gunners) whose function was to put on victory displays. The emperor was a timid man (he was well known for his fear of mice and spiders) though a brave warrior, and one imagines him taking a great deal more pleasure in the fireworks than in the proceedings that led to the celebration.

In later times the celebration became more extensive. The coronation of Czar Alexander II in 1855 was extolled with a fireworks extravaganza staged on a 50-acre site, a band of 2,000 instruments and a choir of 1,000 voices that had to strain to be heard not only above the fireworks but a supplementary corps of artillery.

Most productions of any size in the 18th century were staged against an entire backdrop outfitted to shoot off rockets and firepots, a "temple" it was called, usually constructed in the form of the facade of a large building flanked by columned porticoes. One of the largest temples ever built was put up in London to observe the peace treaty ending the War of the Austrian Succession, an enormous facade 410 feet long and 114 feet high that took six months to build. The Royal Laboratory made a total of 10,650 rockets, shells and pinwheels to be shot out of the thing, and a special team of Italians was sent over to see to the proceedings. Handel composed his Music for the Royal Fireworks for the occasion, a score that called for a noise level not only of fireworks but 100 brass cannons at its conclusion. Just as the performance started, an argument broke out in the temple among the staff—hardly the sort of place for tempers to flare—and, sure enough, an explosion went off, and a fire began that destroyed part of the structure. The show continued throughout all this, but it was a ragged performance at best, and by midnight—the staff continuing to glare at each other, firepots close at hand—much of the fireworks material provided by the Royal Laboratory had yet to be used. The critics were harsh, and subsequent displays relied less on ornate backgrounds.

The guiding figure in the history of fireworks was Charles Thomas Brock, the patriarch of an English family that since the 18th century had manufactured and exhibited fireworks in the amusement parks of England and continental Europe. The firm still exists, one of the largest in the world. The Brocks were famous for putting on fiery representations of such spectacles as the "Eruption of Mount Etna," "The Defeat of the Spanish Armada," "The Forge of Vulcan." The patriarch's programs, which went on for 70 years at London's Crystal Palace, brought to a fine art the use of lances, small cigarette tubes linked together on a scaffolding to trace out brightly burning words, floral designs, portraits and scenes. As many as 35,000 lances were used in some of Brock's fancier concepts, which were set on 80-foot-high panels as long as two football fields. Crowds of 80,000 paid to watch. Portraits were a particular fashion of the late 19th century: the set pieces would begin with a vast floral design of different colors that, as the sparks and smoke drifted downwind, would turn into a portrait of some well-known figure of the day, perhaps a pair of them, their features outlined in white fire.

Portraiture was once a considerable part of American public fireworks, too, one of the staples of a turn-of-the-century Fourth of July being the fiery visage of "Theodore Roosevelt, Our President" burning above the outfield grass in baseball parks. Some of the set pieces worked like moving cartoons—a donkey kicking a man whose head would fly off and explode with a pop; an elephant dipping his trunk into a bucket and spraying up a fountain of fire. Then the emphasis began to turn to aerial displays of rockets and, increasingly, shells. Even some of the set pieces were adapted to fly into the air, including the girandole, a device with a profusion of radiating and revolving rockets. Lifting rockets were ultimately added to this type of ground device so it could spin off a center pole into the air like a whirligig top.

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