Fireworks over Beijing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZa9IeQO1DU
Record-breaking fireworks in the UAE –
How fireworks work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1ixjhzwr_E
They started out as a way to scare mountain men… they cost Disney $50 million a year … but if you live in the NT, you can set them off yourself. This is your Squiz Kids Shortcut to Fireworks—the podcast where we dive into the who, what, when, where, why and how of the big news stories. I’m Amanda Bower.
And I’m Bryce Corbett.
The year is almost over! And you know what that means… me struggling to stay awake until midnight, so I can watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks!
Today, we’ll take you through HOW fireworks work; WHERE you can see some of the biggest and best fireworks in the world; and WHY Cracker Night is controversial.
Listen carefully – there’s a Squiz at the end!
Bryce, the very first fireworks were invented by accident, back in 200BC. Chinese scholars actually used to write on green bamboo stalks, then lay them on warm coals to dry. But if they left them on the fire too long… (BANG!) They exploded. The first firecracker was born! Now, you’ve got to remember that this was long before guns, so that bang was really scary! According to Scientific American, the scholars noticed that the noises scared away some threatening men who lived in the mountains… and over time, the Chinese also believed that the firecrackers scared away bad spirits. Bamboo… who knew? I always thought that fireworks involved gunpowder…
Not until sometime in the 7th century, when some Chinese chemists were trying to create a potion for immortality… meaning that if you swallowed the elixir, you’d live forever. The first ingredient they used was something called saltpetre, or potassium nitrate, which is commonly used as a plant fertiliser. Ingredient number two…. Ingredient number two was charcoal… which does not sound very delicious to drink…
And ingredient number three was sulphur … a tasteless, brittle, yellow-coloured chemical that we now know is one of the most reactive elements on the periodic table… meaning that if you combine sulphur with other chemicals, a reaction is likely to happen. In terms of the actual chemistry, the reaction of gunpowder is pretty cool. Individually, potassium nitrate, sulphur, and charcoal all burn very well, but each of them has their own strengths. Sulphur ignites at a very low temperature – just think about match sticks, where only a small spark is needed. Charcoal provides a massive amount of fuel – think of how long barbecues can stay hot for. And when potassium nitrate is burned, it releases oxygen, which means the fire will keep burning faster and faster. Add them all together, and you get a fast, powerful fire which only takes a spark to ignite – kaboom! In fact, the fire is so fast that the gunpowder doesn’t just burn – it explodes!
So those Chinese chemists never discovered the secret to eternal life…
No, but they did invent history’s first chemical explosive! They called it huo yao, or “fire drug”, and started stuffing it into those bamboo tubes to make a kind of sparkler.
So gunpowder was used for fireworks first, and guns second?
That’s exactly right. It didn’t take long for the Chinese military to realise the potential of stuff that goes bang! They started out by attaching those bamboo sparklers to arrows, and raining them down on their enemies… But let’s focus on the fun use of gunpowder: it was the Italians who took fireworks to the next level, introducing colours and ways of launching the fireworks into the air.
Oh yes… how do you get the different colours?
It’s all about chemistry… basically, you add different elements to the gunpowder to create different effects. I’ll put a list in your episode notes, but barium produces green… copper blue… strontium for red… and something called zirconium, which burns super brightly and is used in those amazing “waterfall” fireworks.
I look forward every New Year’s Eve to watching those waterfalls come off the Sydney Harbour Bridge… WHERE in the world can you see the most impressive fireworks displays?
Bryce, China still makes about 90% of the world’s fireworks, so not surprisingly, they’re pretty good at putting on fireworks displays. I’ve put a link in your episode notes to an anniversary celebration in Beijing that is pretty spectacular … but since 1922, Australia has had its own fireworks manufacturers… started by an engineer at a steelworks in Newcastle who loved the sparks and colours of metalwork, and decided to follow his passion for fireworks. At first, he imported them from England, but they often arrived off the boat soggy and ruined, so he started making his own. And when the Harbour Bridge opened in Sydney in XXXX, his fireworks were used for the celebrations.
Of course, Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks are some of the best known in the world… is New Year’s Eve the most common time for fireworks?
Sure is. The Guinness Book of Records title for the biggest ever fireworks display was set on New Year’s Eve 2016 in the Philippines, when the Iglesia Ni Cristo, or Church of Christ, put on a display that lasted for 1 hour, 1 minute and 32.35 seconds.
There must be amazing video of that!
Sadly, it’s not so hot. It poured with rain the whole way through! The videos are definitely better from New Year’s Eve in Ras al Kaimah, one of the emirates that makes up the United Arab Emirates. They hold multiple world records, including for the longest fireworks waterfall, which spread out for more than 3.7 kms along the waterfront, and the tallest tower of fireworks – more than 1km high into the air! But Bryce, I want you to guess who spends the most money on fireworks every year…
I’ll give you a clue: Its slogan is that it’s the happiest place on earth.
Ah, Disneyland! Of course! Don’t they have fireworks every single night at every park?
Apparently, they fork out more than $50 million a year for fireworks… quite a bit more than the stories my parents told me of saving up their pocket money for Cracker Night!
Oh yes! Cracker Night… they still have it in the Northern Territory and Tasmania, but every other state has banned people from buying and setting off their own fireworks. WHY is Cracker Night so controversial?
For any Aussie kid in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Cracker Night was about as exciting as your birthday and Christmas. For one day only, people were allowed to buy, and set off, their own fireworks. Which, as you can imagine, was incredibly fun, but also pretty dangerous.
By the late 1980s, Cracker Night was banned by every state and territory other than Tasmania and the Northern Territory, in an attempt to eliminate accidents, injuries, and destruction of property.
But every July 1, which is Territory Day in the NT, people are allowed to buy fireworks with names like “Bad Neighbour” and “Nuclear Havoc” between 9am to 9pm. And they’re allowed to fire them off between 6 and 11pm.
And… do people get hurt?
A few years ago, Cracker Night led to 27 injuries, 770 triple-0 calls and 679 grassfires. In 2022, a man had to fight for his life in hospital after a firecracker exploded in his face; another woman was hospitalised with breathing problems after a firecracker flew into her window.
And in Tasmania, where Cracker Night is held in May, the goverment asked people this year to join forces to have a neighbourhood fireworks, instead of lots of little ones… to minimise the effect on animals and wildlife.
Oh yes… I love fireworks, but my dog HATES them.
This is the part of the podcast where you get to test how well you’ve been listening…
1. Which country makes 90% of the world’s fireworks?
2. Name one of the ingredients of gunpowder (bonus points if you get all three)
3. What’s the name of the day in the NT and Tasmania when people are allowed to set off their own fireworks?