In a July 1776 letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams wrote of American independence in terms that would prove prophetic: “It ought to be solemnized with ... Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Americans still heed his words. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, some 225 million pounds of fireworks are blown up in honor of Independence Day, from driveways to city parks to the Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks show in New York City. Some 40,000 high-altitude mortars (that’s more than 1300 every minute) make it the country’s biggest display for The Fourth.
Illuminations — and then some. Old-fashioned Roman candles and ladyfingers have given way to complex multi-break shells with more than a dozen effects in a single firework; setting them off is now a $900 million industry. Today’s shows feature high-tech choreography and split-second timing. You can be sure that the rockets’ red glare will burst precisely when those words are sung during the Star-Spangled Banner.
“It’s an art form,” says Dr. John Steinberg, second vice president of the Pyrotechnics Guild International, an organization of amateur and professional fireworks enthusiasts. “You tour the Louvre or the Guggenheim, and you go, ‘Oh my God, how did they do that?’ The same is true of a good fireworks show.”
Fireworks originated in China more than 1,000 years ago with the discovery of gunpowder. In the 13th century, Marco Polo exported them to Europe, and the Italians continued to refine their chemical formulas to create the effects that would become standard, such as willows and chrysanthemums. Ever since, manufacturers across the globe have raised the stakes by creating more complicated effects. Most recently, they’ve introduced nautical fireworks (floating shells that explode on top of the water) as well as shells that explode into recognizable images — Saturn, a heart, a smiley face. New this year from China: one that fittingly bursts into five interlocking Olympic rings.
The Fourth of July falls on a Friday this year, promising packed shows even as gas prices have hit bottle-rocket heights. But with roughly 16,000 shows held across the country in honor of Independence Day, how to choose which to attend?
Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, advises that the best shows excel in three ways: a beautiful backdrop, unique choreography and a carefully chosen, exhilarating barrage of shells. In Boston, home of the second largest show in the country, more than 30,000 shells explode over the Charles River to the strains of the Boston Pops orchestra. Around 500,000 people turn up for this world-class event.
The annual show at San Antonio’s Sea World proves that bigger isn’t necessarily better. Produced by Santore & Sons, the show releases about one-sixth as many shells as Boston’s, but each has been scaled for close proximity. The effects can sometimes occur just 15 feet away. “It’s an in-your-face experience,” says Lloyd Sponenburg, general manager of Santore & Sons. “The booms are closer, the smoke is there, you can smell the effects.”
Our list of spectacular fireworks displays spans the country, from the granite summit of Mount Rushmore to the glitzy coast of Atlantic City. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of all of this year’s shows is “that there are fireworks at all,” says Lansden Hill, president of the display company Pyro Shows. In mid-February, an explosion destroyed 20 Chinese fireworks warehouses. (It remains unclear whether anyone was injured or killed.) American fireworks display companies, which import more than 80 percent of their goods from China, were panicked that their supplies wouldn’t arrive for the Fourth. While the American Pyrotechnics Association predicts up to a 20 percent shortage of fireworks, they aren’t expecting any major show cancellations.
“It’s certainly costing more money and stress to do a show this year,” says Jeff Souza, president of Pyro Spectaculars by Souza, which will produce more than 400 Fourth of July shows this year, including four on our list: New York City, Boston, Seattle andLake Tahoe. “But we’re making it happen. The show must go on.”
John Adams would certainly agree.