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The Glorious Fourth

As we gear up for the Fourth of July, I quite naturally got to thinking about fireworks. And how fireworks displays have become so computer-driven over the years.  No more lighting a match to set off the Spider or the Chrysanthemum on the town green while the band plays a Sousa march from the gazebo. These days, especially for the major fireworks shows – the extravaganzas that get televised – everything is choreographed (if that’s the right word) by computer.

I came across an interesting piece on the computerization of fireworks on Intel Free Press,

There I learned that the first use of computers with fireworks occurred in the late 1970’s, when a computer “struck” an electric match to set off the fuse that started the show, a safer alternative to flicking a Bic and running for cover. Since then, computer use has become far more sophisticated.

Before a show can be choreographed, the properties for each shell must be logged, including burn time, lift time and effects. Microchips embedded in the shells trigger the fireworks to explode at a specific height, in a particular direction and with millisecond precision.

One of the enhancements that’s coming on is timing chips that will enable more use of letters in displays:

Though letters and numbers have appeared in larger shows over the past few years, often for countdowns and spelling out the patriotic abbreviation in Lee Greenwood’s anthem, “God Bless the U.S.A.,”[Jim] Souza [CEO and president of Pyro Spectaculars] said the industry hasn’t yet perfected the pyrotechnic equivalent of skywriting.

“We call it ballistic fireworks technology, and it takes a number of shells to break in sequences to get it correct,” Souza said. “

While computers have certainly made fireworks displays more complex and entertaining over the years, sometimes fireworks go ballistic on their own.

Last year, the Fourth of July fireworks in San Diego went off with a bang – a big bang – when, just before the show was scheduled to begin, the fireworks barges exploded. The problem was blamed on a computer programming error. (Source: KPBS TV.)

I wouldn’t want to have been that programmer…

Anyway, I don’t (yet) need a computer to flip some burgers on the grill, which is how we’ll be celebrating the Glorious Fourth at my house.

Wishing everyone a happy (and safe) Fourth of July.