Pique the Geek 20110703: Annual Fireworks Essay and a Fantasy

(9 PM – promoted by TheMomCat)

I have written pieces about fireworks in this space for several years now.  This year is no different, but instead of describing how modern fireworks operate, we shall, courtesy of The Doctor, take the TARDIS back to 1784, the first Independence Day after ratification of the Treaty of Paris, so for the first time the United States was a truly independent Nation on 04 July.

Unfortunately, my video camera was not working at the time, so I shall have just to describe what fireworks looked like at the time.  The Doctor told me that he would come again and that we would go to the 1785 one for next year, and make sure that I had a functional video camera.

Except for color, fireworks in that era were similar to some of the least advanced ones that we have today.  The complex aerial effects are quite modern, bright color is modern, and set pieces are also modern.

Before we get started, let us set up some ground rules.  The fantasy part of this piece will be in normal type, and the science behind in shall be in


so that you can sort out the real from the fiction.  This is the first Pique the Geek piece that I have ever attempted that incorporates fiction, and I want it to be clear where it is.

The TARDIS materialized just outside of Philadelphia in the afternoon of 17840704.  We had made a stop in Paris to pick up Dr. Franklin, who was delighted to see his old friend again (he and The Doctor went back decades) and who was extremely gracious to me as well.  We began talking on our way to Philadelphia and he asked me about my unusual manner of dress.  I explained to him that I was wearing Levi blue jeans, something that would be invented about seven decades in future.  That was not what interested him.  It was my Reebock running shoes.

It turns out that we both have (or is it had?) the same size feet, and he very much wanted to try them on.  You have to remember that footwear at the time was not very good.  I had not worn them more than a time or two, so they were not broken in, so I let him try them.  He was delighted.  “Dear boy, these Shoes are the finest that I have ever worn.  May I trade Something of Value to you for Them?”  I told him no, that he could have them as a gift from me to repay to a tiny extent the huge debt that I owed him both as a scientist and as an American.

“My Boy, all that I can offer you is the poor Pair of Boots that I was wearing.  You are certainly getting the worse part of the Deal”, said Dr. Franking.  I told him that I would be honored to wear his boots, and that they would be cherished possessions of mine forever.  “Well, Sir, if that is your Feeling, I accept.  I very much like these wonderful Shoes!  I suffer from the Gout, and the Boots are extremely uncomfortable to me.  I offer you my Thanks for the Exchange.”

Next he saw my eyeglasses.  “You, Sir, are wearing my Invention!  You have two Lenses in One for each Eye!”.  I explained to him that I am nearsighted, and that the lower part had no correction at all, so that I would not have to remove them to read.  He was also fascinated by the flexible earpieces and nosepiece.  “My Boy, those Glasses are extraordinary!”  I told him that they were just the evolution of one of his many inventions.

The Doctor was a bit peckish, and after materialization we walked towards a local tavern and eatery.  What a sight we three were!  The Doctor in his fedora, covering only a bit of his dark brown curls, multicolored scarf nearly dragging the ground, and his grey overcoat; Dr. Franklin in period clothes except for the Reebocks; and me in Levis with a T shirt with a The Who:  Maximum R&B logo on it and wearing Dr. Franklin’s boots.  We sauntered to the tavern and had ales all around, and some mutton and bread.  The ale was warm, and the mutton was cold.  Actually, they were all about the same temperature.  The Doctor had used his sonic screwdriver to purge the mutton of any pathogens, so we ate safely.  Dr. Franklin paid with a Spanish Milled Dollar and remarked, “Hamilton needs to be in charge of our Money.  That Boy has a very good Head for things financial.”

It was beginning to become a bit dark, so we sauntered to the area where the parade was to be.  Imagine being there, in person, to the very first Independence Day celebration after the Treaty!  Dr. Franklin was enjoying his new shoes, but at his age usually preferred to sit.  The Doctor pulled out one of those 1960s aluminum framed lawn chairs, the ones with the nylon webbing, and Dr. Franklin was happy to sit in it.  “My Boy, this wonderful Chair weighs not a Pound, but is very comfortable!  The Bands of Material, what I term Webbing, are as thin as the Skin of the Queen of France!  How can this Material support my Weight yet be still so gossamer?”  The Doctor explained to Dr. Franklin that it is a new fabric, called “nylon” that would not be developed for a century and a half.  Dr. Franklin was also impressed with the metal, asking The Doctor, “My Boy, this Metal is the color of Silver but as strong as Wrought Iron!  But it has only a Mass of a fraction of either Metals!  How is that possible?”

The Doctor was getting a bit irritated.  “Ben, I have told you for 30 years that I am over 600 years OLDER than you!”  Dr. Franklin retreated a bit.  “Yes, this is true.  But you have to consider the Position in which I find myself.  You look much younger than I look, so please forgive an old Man if he calls you My Boy.”  The Doctor’s classic smile came out and he hugged Dr. Franklin.  “Of course, my dear friend!  You may call me anything that you desire, but please not late for supper!”

Dr. Franklin chuckled as the first firecracker was heard.  “Of course, Doctor, and as I am thinking of them, how are the lovely Leela and Sarah Jane these days?  I know that they have not been born yet, but I have a Suspicion that you see them from Time to Time.  That Leela was a real Handful!  It took THREE Bottles of the finest Wine for me to convince her that my Intentions were completely selfish and for her to accede to Them.  However, I think that my Ministrations to her were enough to leave her in a happy Condition, those 45 years ago.”

My mouth dropped!  Dr. Franklin and Leela?  Then I remembered that my personal hero was quite the lady’s man.  He was also quite trim, handsome, and vigorous at that age.  Wow!  Dr. Franklin and Leela!  Who would have thought it?

Anyway the fireworks to celebrate were starting.  That firecracker was actually just a fat cigar outfit with blackpowder in its core and a long fuse.  It was really paper mache, as we would call it now, with a couple of grams of blackpowder in it.  It was loud, but did not not make much flash.

(Now, you KNEW that I would get Geeky, finally, did you not?)  Since aluminum metal was not available, blackpowder was IT.  They were large and loud, but only made a sort of dull red flash and set of sparks, mainly from stray pieces of powder and the paper catching on fire for a moment.  Without modern chemicals, it was not possible to produce what is now called a firecracker.  At the time, they were referred to as torpedoes, as were most all explosive devices that did not fly

The torpedoes went on for some time, with each one being placed on the ground and the fuse alit with a punk, since matches were unknown at the time.  The people who placed them were quick to get back, since three or four grams of blackpowder, properly confined, can blow off all of ones fingers.  Most were mostly smoke and a little reddish color, but a couple of the celebrants had ones that sparkled.  Dr. Franklin was delighted with those.

At the time, as I have mentioned, the only pyrotechnic materials were blackpowder and iron filings.  Mixing iron filings with the blackpowder would produce a bright yellow sparkle effect, IF the iron was ignited.  The technical reason is that, no matter how much confinement is put on blackpowder, it only deflragrates and can never detonate.  That is just its nature.  The difference is the velocity of the explosion wave.  In materials that deflagrate, the explosion wave travels at a velocity lower than the speed of sound.  In materials that detonate, the explosion wave is supersonic.  Roughly stated, that is why blackpowder fueled materials seem to have more of a “boom” sound.  The very sharp percussion is from a detonation, and in 1784 no known substance or mixture could do that.  I neglected to say that granular charcoal can give an orange to yellow effect, but at the time I do not believe that it was known that impregnating that charcoal with potassium nitrate would make it so.  That came later.

Then there were rockets, much like our modern ones.  They, like ours today, were heavy paper tubes filled with blackpowder and attached to a long stick to stabilize them.  One of the celebrants was kind enough to give me one, and The Doctor used the sonic screwdriver to slice it open through the middle.  It was a heavy paper tube (one of the layers of paper was Common Sense!) with a chamber at the bottom with a clay orifice to propel it, and a piece of fuse at the top to ignite the bursting charge at the top.  The top part had a much smaller orifice so that the fuse just was able to ignite the bursting charge.

It was all pretty much blackpowder, but the top also had some iron filings in it.  When it burst, the heat ignited the iron filings, and they were pretty bright, sort of yellow sparkles when it exploded.  Dr. Franklin liked those very much.  “My Boys, if I only had Time, I could perfect these Instruments and make them more pleasing to the Eye!”  I was sort of unimpressed, once again, only a boom with little color, just the orange and red because of the combustion of the blackpowder.

To us, they would be pretty dull, but for Francis Scott Key, in 1814, they were good enough for him to pen the poem that finally became our National Anthem.  Those rockets had a larger payload of blackpowder, with a piece of fuse to act as a delay so that the rocket was more likely to hit the target before the payload exploded.  They were so inaccurate and ineffective that they were not really tried seriously again until World War II when Adolf Hitler commissioned Dr. Werner von Braun to design rockets that could be aimed and that could carry a useful payload.  London suffered a lot from them, but they were liquid fueled rather than solid fueled.  Only recently, and I am talking about the last half century, have solid fueled rockets been controllable.

After a barrage of rockets, they started the mortars.  At the time, the tubes were just upturned cannon from the Revolutionary War!  Remember, our Founders resolved NOT to keep a standing Army nor Navy in times of peace.  We should have learnt that from them, but are now paying over 4 trillions of dollars for wars of choice, but I digress.

NO, I DO NOT DIGRESS!  The United States was FOUNDED on the premise of “live and let live, but not not mess with us”.  What we are doing in foreign intervention is in complete conflict with the vision that the Founders had.  I know, I can hear you asking, “But, Doc, what about that “shores of Tripoli” thing.  They were pirates, interfering with our legal right for trade.  They were messing with us, and we sent them packing.  But we did NOT stay.  We also disarmed as soon as that was done, putting capital back into the civilian economy.  Back to fireworks.

By our standards, the mortar charges were pretty good.  The loud BOOM of the lifting charge, even to this day provided by blackpowder has NEVER changed!  I LOVE that visceral feeling of the percussion on my chest, and the low sound (interestingly, not very damaging to hearing unless one is very close) and the scent of burnt blackpowder.  Nothing is even close as sensory experience goes.

The payloads were pretty good, but still just orange and sometimes a bit of bright yellow flashes.  They were lifted a good 200 feet, and went off nicely.  Once again, one of the people celebrating the festival was willing to allow The Doctor to slice it open for me to see.

In the mortar rounds (each one hand crafted to fit the particular cannon barrel), there was once again a thick paper wrap.  As I used my Uncle Henry pocket knife (Dr. Franklin was fascinated with it, and I gave it to him later) to slice off the paper, I was also interested to see a Poor Richard’s Almanack page.  Ben, and he had insisted on me calling him by now, laughed.  “My Boy, this might be the best Purpose that my Publications ever found.  A Page, printed by my own Hand, is now celebrating the Freedom of our new Nation!”  He actually shed a tear seeing it.

They were pretty much like the ones that we use now.  There was a tiny hole in the bottom of the projectile with a bit of fuse in it to act as a delay train so that it would not burst until high in the sky.  The actual payload was very crude by modern specifications, just packed with blackpowder and iron filings, but the propulsion mechanism has not changed in over 300 years.  Now days we use either very thick cardboard or PVC mortar tubes, but the principle is the same as the cannon tubes that I saw with Ben and The Doctor.

Actually, mortar pieces have evolved more that any of the others, but the basic method of propulsion remains centuries old.  Rather than bore you with the specifics of the display, I shall provide links in a little while to my other pieces about fireworks from years past.

The fireworks were just about gone now, the sound of them replaced by the cheers of the VERY drunken crown from Philadelphia celebrating our very first, completely independent, Independence Day.  The three of us walked the few feet to the TARDIS, The Doctor carrying Ben’s lawn chair.  We went inside and closed the door.

“GENTLEMEN!” shouted The Doctor.  “This is a seminal event in the evolution of not just the human race, but for all sentient races yet to come.  You, Ben, have given a whole planet the chance for its population to rule itself, by the example that you will set several years from now when you will be the voice of reason and science when what you will finally call The Constitution of the United States of America is drafted and ratified.  This calls for a toast!  We shall rematerialize in Dave’s living room for it.”

Of course The Doctor rematerialized the TARDIS OUTSIDE of my house, right in the front of the driveway!  The Doctor was not one to be subtle.  Straight up, at 5:00 PM Eastern, on a holiday Monday, when everyone was active, there it was.  Ashley and Alexis saw us first, and Alexis, only two years old, was frightened at first.  Then I opened the door (pulling it in, the correct way) and exited, and Alexis ran to say hello to me.  She is a very charming and intelligent little girl, and shook my hand.  Ashley was a bit more dumbfounded.

I have lived here for years, and Ashley and I have always been nice to each other.  But for her to see my “vehicle” materialize out of thin air was a bit much for her.  I asked The Doctor if he would be willing to show her how this was possible.  He agreed!  He asked Ashley inside.  Her first sentence was, “But it is bigger inside than it is outside!”  They always say that!

My dear friends Elmer and Helen were also sitting in their yard across the street when the TARDIS materialized.  Elmer got his shotgun, fearing that this was some sort of a galactic attack.  I went to talk to the two of them, and he took out the shells.

“You always told us about The Doctor, but I just thought it was fiction!  Now I know!”

I took Ben inside and gave him a sip of Bourbon whiskey.   May I have some cool Water?”  I told him certainly, and pulled my 2 liter bottle of tap water from the Bluegrass out of my refrigerator and poured him some.  He drank it heartily, and asked for another glass.  I gave him that.

“My Boy, that water is what I termed a few years ago as Hard, meaning that it tastes wonderful but kills Soap.  I do not know what Elements are responsible for that.  And how is it that this Water is cold, even though it is warm in this Room?”  I explained to him that once again, electricity allowed it.

I just chuckled and brought him to my computer.  “Dr. Franklin, HERE is your contribution to The United States!  You were the most vociferous voice for Free Speech, and this is it in 2011.  Read this one.”

The piece was one from TheMomCat on TheStarsHollowGazette.com, about politics.  He was fascinated!

“My Boy, when did this wonderful Person write that Piece?  I do not understand the Context well, but I find the Analysis to be excellent.  Please tell me more!”

I explained to him that contact is instant, all over the planet.  He shivered.  “My Boy, if we had had Something like this, the War would never had been fought.  The English and the French would had just said to Hell with them!  How is this possible?”

I told him that it was the inevitable outcome from his research into electricity.  I assured him that almost EVERYTHING these days runs on electricity, and that his early experiments opened the doors for all of our technology.  I also told him that I would have preferred for him to have been our first President.  It took a while for the words to penetrate the mind of one of the most brilliant people in recorded history.  He sat back a bit.

“My Boy, may I have another Sip of that wonderful Whisky?  And another Sip of that Water would be appreciated as well!”

I poured both of us a long, four fingered drink of Bourbon, and a large glass of ice water to share.  Ben is no stranger to alcohol.  He sort of swirled the Bourbon in the glass, and sipped it.  Even at his age, he had a good sense of smell.  “My Boy, this is very good!  My Feet feel less hurtful!  May I take some of the Water from what you call the Bluegrass back to France with me, if The Doctor agree?”

That got me thinking!  The Doctor was no where around.  Ben (my Reeboks making him feel better) and I got up and tried to find him.  The TARDIS was open, and The Doctor was showing Ashley and Alexis around it.  Ben and I winked at each other, knowing that Ashley and Alexis would be his new companions after he left here, and took Ben back to France.

“Ben, before you go, please learn how to type and leave some messages for us in this modern age!  I implore you to do so!”

“My Boy, I would be get Joy in doing that!  How is this Thing, that I shall call a Keyboard, work?”

“Just push the letter that you want, quickly, and then let it go.  The letter will appear on the screen.  If you want a capital letter, use your left finger to hold down the “Shift” button whist you hit the letter.”

It took Dr. Franklin all of three minutes to master the technique.  “My Boy, this is MUCH easier than setting Type!  I can say Anything in Seconds!  Who reads these Messages?”

I told him that thousands of people can read his current thoughts, almost immediately, as soon as I post them.  He was astonished.

“My Boy, I could only print one Piece at a time!  And you say that Thousands can read what I say in only Seconds?  You have the Advantage on my, My Boy!  Thomas and I could only print a Few, and were always under the Threat of Arrest.”

I assured him that, because of his genius, the United States is much like how he would have had it.  The Doctor came back in, telling us that it was time for Ben to go back to France, and that he had found two new companions.

Ben and I hugged each other, as did Ashley, Alexis and I.  The Doctor took them all into the TARDIS, and I have not seen any of them since.  However, they can do the work of a lifetime and come back half a minute from now.

I hope that you liked the fantasy part, but the blockquote parts are science.  Please have the most wonderful Independence Day ever!  Since this was a bit skimpy on science, here are links from previous pieces on fireworks in this series.  Just to carry it to the extreme, here is a picture of me in the scarf that The Doctor gave me that evening.  Note that later on he wore a black, grey, and red one rather than this one.  Now you know why!

The Doctor with Scarf




Well, you have done it again!  You have wasted many einsteins of perfectly good photons reading this (mostly) fictional piece.  And even though Thaddeus McCotter realizes that he can NEVER be President when he reads me say it, I always learn much more than I could ever possibly hope to teach by writing this series, so keep those comments, corrections, corrections, and other feedback coming!  Tips and recs are also welcome.  I shall hang around tonight as long as comments warrant it, and shall return tomorrow evening after Keith’s (who has not yet contacted me to be his science adviser) show for Review Time.

Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith


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  1. fireworks and fantasies?

    Warmest regards,


  2. I very much appreciate it.

    Warmest regards,


  3. here from the Live (not free) and die state known as New Hampshire, sort of.  Just saw an ad from Phantom Fireworks touting the “safety” of their products.  All us us wanna be “safe” right, or is it government lowering risk potentials for multi-national insurance giants.  You, Joe Six Pack homeowner(or not) just can’t be allowed to damage your ability to be employed by corporate.

    Anyway one can buy benign ground pieces but no rockets of any kind, certainly no “quarter sticks” or class B festy balls.  New Hampshire has become Northern Marxachusetts, a place people can argue about the size of signs.  Corporate entities then respond by flying 75 square foot “American flags”.

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