The Chemical Educator, Vol. 5, No. 6, S1430-4171(00)06436-4, 10.1007/s00897000436a, © 2000 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.

The Chemistry of Fireworks. By Michael S. Russell, Royal Society of Chemistry, Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge, UK. March 2000. xviii + 118 pp. 216 x 138 mm. £18.95. ISBN 0 85404 598 8.


Reveiwed by, Paul E. Smith, Purdue University,


The output of books providing accurate scientific details on pyrotechnics has slowed greatly during the past five years. While good texts on this subject are still available, new additions to this literature have been rare and there has been an increasing emphasis on reprinting some of the classic texts on fireworks. Now Michael S. Russell adds another treatise on the chemistry involved in the composition of display fireworks.


The publication of The Chemistry of Fireworksis a welcome addition as a primer to the chemistry of pyrotechnics. While this book was written for the student with an A-level qualification or equivalent in chemistry, it has potential for use in a college-level general chemistry course. (The British “A level” equates to Advanced Placement coursework at the high-school level in the United States.)


In twelve chapters, Russell covers the basic devices used in fireworks and concludes with a consideration of pyrotechnic safety and British regulations and standards. Chapter 1 includes a seven-page glossary of pyrotechnic terms designed to help those reading pyrotechnic literature for the first time. Some of the definitions are quite brief and do not completely explain some key terms. Stars are defined simply as “a compressed pellet of explosive composition designed to be projected as a pyrotechnic unit.” This excludes two of several other major forms of stars, including the rolled and cut styles. This reviewer found the glossary helpful in “translating” some of the British terms for fireworks; terminology is not always the same. For example: the U.S. pyrotechnician would know the Burster as the burst charge or composition, the British term for the lift charge is the propellant, and the U.S. terms Quickmatch and Black Match are called Piped Match and Quickmatch respectively in Britain.


Chapter 1, “Historical Introduction,” is a nine-page condensation of the history of black powder. While this survey focuses on the development of black powder in Britain, Russell does cover the key events in international history and gives the reader a chronologic time frame to see how this compound has progressed. He starts with the Chinese and the Arabs as the discoverers of black powder and continues through Roger Bacon’s work, ending with modern-day knowledge.


Chapter 2, “The Characteristic of Black Powder,” is a concise yet sufficient account of the basic dynamics of black powder. Russell includes the influences of composition, density, moisture, and stoichiometry. This chapter could be used in the practical application of teaching such basic principles of chemistry as the heat of reaction, enthalpy change, stoichiometry, and activation energies, as applied to ignition temperatures.


Chapter 3, “Rockets,” invokes the science of physics and chemistry in the description of the basics of rocketry. This ten-page chapter provides an introductory view of the key principles including propellants, ballistics (both internal and external), and influences on rocket design.


Chapter 4, “Mines and Shells,” deals with the two major devices used in modern display fireworks. Once again, internal and external ballistics are discussed. Russell again uses the European system to describe shell diameter in millimeters, in contrast to the U.S. practice of describing shell and mortar dimensions in inches. He describes the current trend toward using plastic hemispheres to construct ball-type shells. While plastic has grown in popularity, he refers to a type of plastic shell with lift included that is rather outdated and not currently seen in the U.S. The author introduces mines, but gives little description of how they are constructed compared to aerial shells.


Chapter 5, “Fountains,” not only describes how fountains are constructed, but also introduces the reader to atomic and quantum theory. This information provides the background knowledge required for a brief discussion of how different colors are produced in fountains and other fireworks. His descriptions are adequate for this level of book, but the discussion spreads from this chapter into those that follow.


He writes about “Sparklers” in Chapter 6, “Bangers” in Chapter 7, and then in Chapter 8, “Roman Candles” completes his explanation of how the main colors of fireworks are produced. This dispersal of the discussion over several chapters does not help the newcomer to pyrotechnics apply the theory to current applications. I would recommend that this subject be discussed in a single chapter, rather than spread among several. These chapters do, however, provide the novice with a clear indication of how these fireworks perform.


He divides the discussion of color by giving the standard information on green and red stars, while leaving discussion of blue stars to later in the book. Blue stars are the most challenging to understand and are also the hardest to make with consistent color. Blue-producing compositions are discussed two chapters later inChapter 10, “Special Effects,” which describes how different color lance materials, including blue, are formulated. The author does an ample job of handling the current understanding of how blues are produced in flames of the pyrotechnic materials’ combustion. The color of these flames is discussed in full some five chapters after this subject is introduced. Consolidating this discussion of color would strengthen the text and afford a more systematic and cohesive understanding of this key topic.


Chapter 9, “Gerbs and Wheels,” provides a good description of these interesting and entertaining historic devices of fireworks. Chapter 11, “Fireworks Safety” and Chapter 12, “Fireworks Legislation” help the reader grasp how important safety and following the regulations are to properly and legally displaying fireworks.


This book would make a good supplemental textbook to a high-school A.P. chemistry or college general chemistry course. The fundamental principles of chemistry can be effectively illustrated through their application in pyrotechnics, and this textbook provides some of that correlation. Some errors remain. For example, in Chapter 2, Equations 2.9 and 2.10 set k, the rate constant for a reaction, equal to t, the time until ignition. The rate constant will increase with a temperature rise, whereas the time to ignition must decrease. Perhaps this was a transposed equation that could be easily corrected in a future printing. While this volume can be improved, it does offer a starting point for the beginning student of pyrotechnics and chemistry.