How a Fireworks Magician Tames Dynamite (Aug, 1934)
How a Fireworks Magician Tames Dynamite
Flaming dynamite and exploding mortars are the chief tools of the fireworks expert. In this vivid, intimate story one of the aces of the fireworks army takes you behind the scenes to reveal, for the first time, the thrills and dangers of his roaring trade.
MILLIONS of Americans thrill yearly to the glittering wheels, flaming rockets and spectacular bombs of the giant fireworks displays; but the men who fire them are the men nobody knowsâ€”the world’s most mysterious showmen.
How does it feel to walk among the flaming sets and exploding mortars during a big display? What are the real dangers of this roaring trade? What is the strange, unexplainable lure of a profession that requires toying with tons of explosives to give the crowds a flaming thrill?
Art Briese, for nineteen years an expert pyrotechnician for Thearle-Duffield, recently revealed the mysteries of his calling to an investigator for Modern Mechanix and Inventions. Briese has personally blown millions of dollars worth of fireworks into blazing ruins; he’s touched off enough powder and dynamite to blow Pike’s Peak into fragments; and he’s come through his exacting job with injuries no more serious than scorched hands and a current enthusiasm for his work that’s as keen as the day he-got his first stick of dynamite to bore.
“One of the important things to keep in mind about fireworks,” said Briese, “is the difference between display work and the over-the-counter businessâ€”that is, the sale of firecrackers, pin wheels, rockets and the – like to the consumer. Accidents are far less frequent in display work because trained men do the firing.
“The noise-makers are the most dangerous pieces. In fact, a stick of dynamite is about the most hazardous unit we employ.
Of course, when this is handled properly, it’s safe.
“We don’t use much dynamite in the average show. At the Century of Progress, for instance, it is forbidden because the shock would be harmful to fish in the Shedd Aquarium. In shows where dynamite is used the sticks are fired electrically. They are suspended a few feet above the ground and carefully isolated to prevent damage. These shots and the big bombs we call ‘ballyhoo.’ The bombs are fired from mortars, steel cylinders buried up to their necks in the ground. Workers are protected by a barricade consisting of a 12” x 12″‘ timber or a telephone pole to prevent danger in case a bomb is detonated in the mortar. The firing fuse lies out over the barricade where it can be ignited easily without getting too near the mortar. This fuse ignites a charge of powder at the base of the bomb, literally pushing it into the air. The explosion comes when a time fuse, already ignited, reaches the powder charge.
Guarding Against Accidents
“The worst accidents in the fireworks business occur at the factories but they are rare now. Only small quantities of material are Handled at a time and most of the work is done in isolated sheds, spotted over a . wide area. These sheds are of flimsy construction. If an explosion does occur, the walls and roof give way, reducing the shock to any persons inside. The big display sets with all their sparks and fire may look hazardous but they are not as dangerous as the simple sticks of dynamite and the bombs. A big display may contain a ton of material but only 300 or 400 pounds of this may be explosive powder. Chemicals make up the balance of the material; and whereas they’ll burn, of course, they won’t explode violently.
How Displays Are Fired
“Shooters wear no special safety equipment, not even goggles.. The firing is done with a ‘port fire’ a five-foot flare made of two rocket sticks spliced together. It burns about five minutes and gives plenty of brilliant light so the operator can see the ‘match,’ or fuse, where the piece is set off. Sometimes part of the set doesn’t go off because of a broken connection. We keep watch for this and reach up with a port fire and start it going. Any part of the set can be fired as long as the fuse can be reached. This burns rapidly. In a few seconds, it ignites the entire piece, firing the little fire pots or lances that are attached to the rattan backing with which the designs are traced on the set.
“Big pieces are made up of wooden frames or sections. The rattan design is placed on at the factory and the frames with the necessary lances are shipped to the scene. The operator’s job is to assemble the sections, join the fuses together, or ‘cut them in,’ as we say, and, of course, fire the set when the proper time comes.
“A big piece like the ‘Chicago Fire’ made for the Century of Progress contains 500 frames, is 700 feet long and from 20 to 65 feet high. The popular ‘Bombardment of Ft. McHenry’ set takes 1,200 feet of fast-burning fuse, 2,880 color pots or lances, 80 pounds of chemicals and powder, 1,200 feet of pliable rattan and over 1,000 square feet of frames.
“Thrills?” Briese smiled. “What gives the crowd a thrill is pretty much routine to us. The shooters can’t really see the fireworks with their faces right up against ‘cm but there’s a lot of satisfaction in getting a good show together, licking all the problems that come up and then having people say it was swell. We get the news even if we don’t come down to the footlights!
“Want to know what we’re most afraid of? Bain! A few little innocent raindrops trickling out of a cloud will scare a ‘shooter’ more than a whole carload of bombs. Bain may mean a big loss of fireworks, and an expensive delay. We frequently carry rain insurance to protect us against these losses.
“Getting helpers on the job is one of the big problems but we have solved it pretty well by always having an expert to take charge.
“There are only about 200 really professional fireworks shooters in the United States. Sometimes the green helper is more bother than he’s worth. Down in Birmingham, Ala., one year, I got two negroes to help me set up a show and hired them to stay for the shooting. Night came and the hour for the firework*. I touched off the first piece, a set of fast-burning, spark-shooting pinwheels. My trusty aids got into the spirit of the thing immediately. The last I saw of them, they were vanishing into the night at top speed.
A Fireworks Flight With Ruth Law
“Things are always happening to break the routine and that’s an additional reason why the work is interesting. I was on a job at Avoca, Iowa, in 1917. I had been in the business just three years. I felt I knew a lot but I got a new idea on this angle and found there was lots to learn. Ruth Law, the famous aviatrix, was there, giving a flying exhibition. She decided to make a night flight with fireworks flaring from her plane, the first time she had attempted such a stunt.
“I attached the fireworks to the wings of her plane, one of those old-type pushers with the engine behind and the seat out in front. The pieces were to be fired by electric squibs connected in series to the plane’s magneto.
‘Want to go along?’ she called to me. ‘I may need some help firing this stuff.’
“I looked at the plane. There didn’t seem to be much accommodation for passengers.
“‘Just hop on the wing there and you’ll be all right,’ said Ruth. She was getting impatient. The old engine was chugging away behind and the crowds were waiting.
“I doubt if I would do it today, but I hopped on as fast as I could, tickled to go up with Ruth. I straddled all the wires and other supports I could drape myself around, dug my fingernails into a strut and away we went, into the black night with the lights of Avoca and its fair falling away below us.
The Dangers of Flying Fireworks “I didn’t have any time to think about the flight. .The fireworks kept me busy. We fired ’em all right but I was worried about the flares. Would they fire all right or would they set the wings ablaze? I had all the confidence in the world in Ruth’s flying ability, but I didn’t know whether or not the fireworks would bother her. The glare and extra wing weight might prove disturbing.
“Everything went splendidly, however. In fifteen of the most absorbing minutes I have ever spent, we were back on the field and the crowd was giving Ruth a big hand. And she deserved it. The stunt sounds rather tame now. Fireworks from a plane are an old story and we know a lot more about attaching them and firing them properly. But these were early days in aviation and flying fireworks were a distinct novelty. Ruth Law proved that night as she did many times before and since that she was a real sportswoman and not afraid of anything.”