Fireworks used to be different. A single rocket would fire into the stratosphere. It would explode with sparks that filled the night sky. The audience would ooh and ahh. And after a few moments of silence, the cycle would repeat.
That’s not just your childhood memory at work. Fireworks shows really were slower and fueled by bigger explosions just a few decades back. Today, shows tend to pack in more, smaller fireworks to make up scale in bulk. There are a variety of intersecting anthropological and financial reasons for that, explains Doug Taylor, the president of Zambelli Fireworks (a company that will put on roughly 600 fireworks shows across the country this holiday weekend). People live closer together, safety regulations have gotten tighter, and if you don’t have size, fireworks are exciting in sheer density.
To understand firework lingo, you have to realize that fireworks are described in inches per shell, and each inch correlates to 100 feet in launch height. That means a two-inch shell fires 200 feet into the air, and a four-inch shell reaches 400 feet. The bigger the shell, the bigger the pyrotechnics.
“What’s happened is, the size shell that you can shoot in a particular location has decreased,” Taylor explains. Just as shell width correlates to height, so too does height correlate with regulation. Old regulations dictated that you needed 70 feet of area cleared for every inch of shell fired around a launch area. The new industry standard is 100 feet. So when you play that out, practically, a large 12-inch shell needs 1,200 feet (or nearly a quarter of a mile) cleared in every direction to be considered safe.
Taylor tells me that fireworks sites nationwide have been shrinking with both urbanization and suburban sprawl. And fellow fireworks company Pyrotecnico echoes the sentiment. “What we’re finding is that sites are shrinking,” explains Pyrotecnico Creative Director Rocco Vitale. “Growth is happening. More buildings are going up. And when that happens at a site, a show you could use six-inch shells two years ago becomes a place for four-inch shells.”
Neither company feels that the end product has suffered as a result: Since the extra expense per each inch of shell grows almost exponentially, the savings made from downsizing can be reinvested into the experience.
“Rather than one eight-inch shell, I could probably put 12 three-inch shells up for the same price,” Taylor says. “We like that for several reasons. Larger shells are more dangerous because they have more explosive power in them. But the truth is, people in this country especially like density in their fireworks show.”
So it wasn’t your imagination. Fireworks have gotten smaller over the years. But there’s a bright side: The public may be safer, and happier, for it.
Other fun facts I learned from talking to fireworks companies:
- Most fireworks are named after flowers.
- The center, secondary bursts are called pistils.
- If a firework looks like a smiley face in the sky, it’s packed like a smiley face inside.
- A vast majority of firework production has moved to China.
- Your average show takes two man-hours of design for every minute you see.
- More highly choreographed, music-synced shows can take twice that.
- Most shows play out via three distinct altitudes.
- The opening of a show is so dazzling that it’s actually called an “opening finale.”
[Image: Malaysia International Firework Competition, SJ Liew via Flickr, Fireworks, 1920 via Library of Congress, Fireworks display in Raymore, Missouri, Jeff Goldenvia Flickr]
This article originally appeared on Co.Design July 3, 2013.