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How new tricks make Fourth of July fireworks better than ever

Fourth of July fireworks now have new effects, new technology, and new colors. These advances have revolutionized fireworks in the recent years.

By Staff writer / July 3, 2011

Macy’s put on a July 4 display in New York in 2010.

Jackson Lee/Newscom/File

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One year of planning. Fifteen seconds of payoff.

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The Gruccis are used to this sort of math. For five generations, this family of fireworks experts has turned careful planning into concussive performances.

But the art of blasting colored skies into peoples' memories has changed greatly in recent years, as computers have begun to run the show.

"Each and every one of our shells now has its own computer chip," says Philip Butler, producer and "chief operating brother-in-law" for Fireworks by Grucci in Brookhaven, N.Y. "Now we can orient each and every show perfectly."

When Mr. Butler married into the family business, the Gruccis couldn't pull off many of the tricks that now make it famous in the world of fireworks. Yet in the last decade, the craft of gunpowder and paper has turned into a science of chemistry and computer chips, allowing for more elaborate, more colorful, and safer spectacles than ever before.

This Independence Day, about 60 percent of fireworks shows will rely on old-school pyrotechnics: hand-firing various shells in loose order. There's nothing wrong with this style, says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association in Bethesda, Md. It's satisfied viewers for decades, if not centuries. But she is nudging the industry away from this tradition.

The share of hand-fired displays has dropped dramatically since 2000, thanks to safety codes and a bit of one-upmanship from the cities and companies that hire pyrotechnicians.

Electronically fired shows, such as the Gruccis', allow for millisecond precision, instead of four or five seconds when hand-lit, according to Butler. Experts can now direct blasts to exactly where they want them – to spell words, to form the Olympic rings (as during the Beijing games), or Butler's favorite: to create a full rainbow across the night sky.

The "Transient Rainbow," from Grucci and gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang, forms a 300-foot arch of colored bursts. One thousand shells fire in just 15 seconds. With computer-assisted timing, the group can place each of its seven different colors perfectly in space, as if using pixels to create a full picture.

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