A Booming Field

A Grand Junction couple churns out big-bang theories about fireworks.

At first Ken Kosanke's research was underappreciated.
"We were making these colored balls of fire, and so to see what they looked like, we'd throw them up in the air, because the chemistry changes," he recalls. "Unfortunately, we had a neighbor whose garage had burned down after it was struck by lightning, and he was a little paranoid. So he'd report us, and the fire department came out every once in a while. But what we were doing was very, very close to being legal. So we never got into any trouble."

That was about ten years ago. Since then, Kosanke has moved to a more expansive--and safer--140-acre spread outside of Grand Junction, where he and his wife, Bonnie, have continued their experiments. Though their specialty is considered a bit esoteric among most academics, they have earned a measure of renown among a growing group of committed scientists. In fact, today "Ken and Bonnie Kosanke are the foremost experts on fireworks in the entire country," says Wesley Smith, a chemistry professor at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho.

Time was when anyone interested in fireworks outside of the July 4 holiday was either a twelve-year-old boy or an Idaho recluse with a grudge against the IRS. But with a resume that boasts a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and lengthy post-doctoral work in nuclear physics, Ken Kosanke has a legitimate claim to being a genuine academic researcher.

Like most scholars, he likes to show off his results. So two summers ago the Kosankes founded and began publishing the Journal of Pyrotechnics from their Whitewater home on the Western Slope. The publication comes out twice a year. The Summer 1997 issue, which features such explosive tracts as "Techniques for the Quantitative Analysis of Sulphur and Chlorate in Fireworks Compositions" and "A Survey of Concussion Powders," just hit the stands. If it sells as well as the Journal's four previous issues, about 1,000 people from forty countries will flip through the articles.

Pyrotechnics--basically the study of blowing things up--is hardly a new topic. Explosives have been around for several millennia, and recreational-display pyrotechnics for nearly as long. Much of the modern development of fireworks was done in Italy. "There were a lot of Catholics there--plenty of excuses for celebrations," hypothesizes Robert Winokur, a biologist-cum-fireworks-researcher at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Even today, the big names in fireworks are Zambelli and Grussi.

Despite its long history, though, pyrotechnics traditionally has been considered more art than science: People knew what worked, but not why. A recipe for magenta starbursts, for example, might be passed down from father to son but never documented or tested.

Recently, that knowledge gap has fired the imaginations of a small group of scholars with advanced university degrees and fond early memories of bottle rockets, M-80s and smoke bombs. These scientists have been trying to bring rigorous scientific discipline to the practice of blowing things up for fun.

"Fifteen years ago there was almost nothing available on display fireworks in terms of technical writing," says UNLV's Winokur. "There were some articles on pyrotechnics of a military nature--flares, exploding bolts, things used in space. But if you wanted to read an article on cluster shells, there was nothing."

In 1977 several pioneering researchers started a magazine called Pyrotechnica. An early edition featured Winokur's 32-page opus "The Pyrotechnic Phenomenon of Glitter." "It was the culmination of two years of experiments," he says. But that journal, where 32-page articles were not uncommon, was a bit too academic for some enthusiasts. Besides, you never quite knew when it was going to come out. Serious pyrotechnologists were left wanting.

On the other end of the spectrum were a handful of journals that didn't quite hit the rugged academic standard coveted by the explosives scientists. The available reading material ranged from American Fireworks News, a sort of "this-is-what-we-blew-up-and-it-was-cool" gazette, to dry government manuals (the U.S. Army's 1969 Improvised Munitions Handbook No. 31-210 is a classic), to the fringe scary (The Anarchist Cookbook).

In the meantime, boys like Wesley Smith, who'd always loved blowing off fireworks on summer nights, were growing up and going to college. "I did fireworks all my life," he says. "My mom told me it was dangerous and not to do it unless I knew what I was doing. So I started to study. One of the reasons I went into chemistry was my interest in pyrotechnics."

"It gets under your skin," adds Scot Anderson, an explosives-loving kid who grew up into a Lockheed Martin engineer with a jones for model rockets. "Once you've been working on a fireworks display, you just want to do it again and again."

Ken Kosanke followed the same general path, with a sort of Horatio Alger spin. "We lived in a lake resort community in Wisconsin," he recalls. "But we were the year-round residents--the poor folks. Our neighbors shot off neat things every summer. Our Fourth of July began on the 5th, when we rounded up all their duds. So I guess my interest in fireworks stems from some emotional deficiency I had as a child."

Despite the trauma, Kosanke forgot about pyrotechnics as he built a career as a researcher. But after earning a doctorate at Michigan State University and following it up with lengthy post-doctoral studies, including a stint at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, he discovered that he was still intellectually unsatisfied.

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