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Classroom Activity

To trace the evolution of various aspects of fireworks from their invention to today.

Materials for each student
  • copy of "History of Fireworks" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  1. Fireworks have been around for more than 1,000 years. To help students understand how they have evolved, have students investigate their invention and use over time.

  2. Organize students into five groups and distribute the "History of Fireworks" student handout to each student. Assign students in each group to take notes on the evolution of fireworks in the following areas as they watch the program:

    • the time period over which they have been used
    • the chemistry involved
    • the techniques used
    • the type of use
    • the frequency of use
  3. After students watch, have each group conduct additional research on its assigned topic. Have group members synthesize their information on one page.

  4. Have the time period group create a relative scale timeline of the period in which fireworks have been used, starting with the use by the Chinese, and following through to Renaissance, Victorian, and modern-day uses. The timeline should be large enough for the other groups to add their information.

  5. Have each group add its information to the timeline and, when all groups are done, have each group present its information. After all groups have presented, discuss with students what occurred during each phase of the timeline. What are the major ways in which fireworks have changed over the course of their history?

Activity Answer

The chemistry of fireworks has remained basically the same since their discovery. Gunpowder, which is the basis of many fireworks, is supplemented with metal powders to create sparky effects. The three basic ingredients are potassium nitrate (75 percent), charcoal (15 percent), and sulfur (10 percent). Saltpeter enhances the flame. A propellant is used to launch the fireworks into the sky.

The Chinese are credited with discovering fireworks by creating a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter that would explode if enclosed in a small place. The Chinese would use firecrackers to scare away evil spirits. In medieval times, when people spent most of their time in the dark, people were fascinated by the sparks and explosions that created light. During the Renaissance, the military was responsible for both war artillery and for fireworks used during peacetime. In 1575, the Earl of Leicester hosted Elizabeth I and capped a multi-day feast with fireworks. Rulers would often use fireworks in ceremonies to prove they could create magic for their subjects. In the 1730s, fireworks went from being used for dramatic purposes to more common uses.

It wasn't until the 1830s that pyrotechnicians learned how to add color to fireworks. Replacing potassium nitrate with potassium chlorate, an energetic oxidation agent, raised the combustion temperature of the fireworks to 2,000 degrees C (3,632 degrees F), allowing for a wider range of colors to be used. Colors are created by adding metal salts to the mixture. Each metal salt produces light in a specific wavelength (sodium salts create yellow; copper salts, blue; strontium nitrate, red; barium nitrate, green; charcoal or other form of carbon, orange). Pyrotechnicians are now trying to figure out how to create letters. Modern-day uses range from small to large celebrations. State laws vary concerning the type of fireworks allowed; some states allow none.

Links and Books


Lancaster, Ronald, Roy E. A. Butler, J. Mark Lancaster, Takeo Shimizu, and Thomas A.K. Smith. Fireworks: Principles and Practice. New York: Chemical Publishing Company, 1998.
Opens with a world history of the manufacture and display of fireworks.

Web Sites

NOVA Online—Fireworks!
Provides program-related articles, interviews, interactive activities, resources, and more.

Fireworks and Pyrotechnics
Links to several sites about the chemistry and physics of making fireworks. Includes links to the chemistry of firework colors, the science and history of fireworks, and a description of some 150 chemicals used in pyrotechnics and explosives.

Fireworks: The Science Behind the Spectacle
Offers the history of pyrotechnics, the chemistry of fireworks, the physics of fireworks, and the construction of fireworks.

Rocket History
Explains how rockets were developed in tandem with or as derivatives of fireworks.


The "History of Fireworks" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards:

Grades 5-8

Science as inquiry

Science Standard G:
History and Nature of Science

History of Science

  • In historical perspective, science has been practiced by many different cultures. In looking at the history of many peoples, one finds that scientists and engineers of high achievement are considered to be among the most valued contributors to their culture.

Grades 9-12

Science as inquiry

Science Standard G:
History and Nature of Science

Historical Perspectives

  • In history, diverse cultures have contributed scientific knowledge and technological inventions. Modern science began to evolve rapidly in Europe several hundred years ago. During the past two centuries, it has contributed significantly to the industrialization of Western and non-Western cultures. However, other, non-European cultures have developed scientific ideas and solved human problems through technology.

Teacher's Guide

Video is required for this activity

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