Tiny Chips Make for Big Bangs

Photographs by Michael Duva

Technology may have made a big bang with the ancient art of fireworks over the past two decades, but its biggest is yet to come. So says Phil Grucci, 38, whose family name has become synonymous with American pyrotechnics, lighting up the sky for the past six presidential inaugurals and this year’s Salt Lake City Olympics. Next year, preceding the launch of the world’s biggest shell,
Grucci will use dozens of precisely timed shells to create the first 10-to-1 countdown in the sky.

Making it possible is a new microchip-powered time fuse accurate to 0.001 seconds. Hundreds of these chips (at $40 a pop) will allow Grucci to create aerial “pixels” for every number–between 20 and 30 shells for each. The countdown will precede the launch of a 48-inch, 650-pound shell, possibly as part of a 2003 New Year’s Eve celebration.

But first things first. It’s early May, and Grucci’s 88-acre Brookhaven, New York, compound is buzzing as his team prepares for the 26th Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular, a 20,000-shell celebration over the East River in New York City. I’m here to contribute to the patriotic cause–to build the company’s signature 4-inch Golden Filter Split Comet, which Grucci calls “a gold twinkling Milky Way of 21 lattice comets, each of which splits into four smaller ones.”

Assembly is relatively simple. You could’ve done it in high school shop class, provided you had access to the lift charge and the Comets, which are comprised of an oxidizer and a fuel (iron and a proprietary material), crushed into a powder and compressed into a cylindrical pellet 1 inch in diameter and 6 inches long. The learning curve is so short, in fact, that would-be pyrotechnists can be certified after a 32-hour course ($60; Graduates are often hired for some of the 80 Independence Day shows Grucci does every year.

A crew of 10 can make 500 Comets a day. I complete mine in just over an hour. All for a pyrotechnic effect that lasts 8 seconds. Worth it? Judge for yourself when it lights up the sky on July 4. It’ll be the third one from the left.


Don’t try this at home. If you want to get into the field, sign up
for Grucci’s 32-hour certification course instead. We cannot be held
reponsible for the well-being of your appendages.

21 explosive pellets
1 cardboard cylinder
2 cardboard disks
1 quick-match fuse
1 electric igniter
black powder
brown craft paper
Elmer’s glue

1. (Left) Comet pellets are loaded into a 4-inch-diameter cardboard cylinder in rows of seven, with the black powder burst charge (it’s made from potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur) poured into crevices.

2. A time-fuse-embedded cardboard disk is
inserted on top.

3. Three layers of glue-impregnated paper are pasted around the outside, and both ends closed, leaving the fuse exposed. Everything dries until hard.

4. Quick-match fuse (a string dipped into liquified black powder and allowed to dry) is attached to time fuse. Black powder lift charge poured into bottom.

5. Electric igniter attached.

6. Loaded in mortar and fired. Comet rises to 350 feet, bursting 4 seconds after takeoff.