A Booming Field

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.

"A typical group of researchers would be about thirty to fifty people working on a project for several years," he explains. "Where is the joy in that? Some guy works his entire life and comes up with one more decimal point on the speed of light, and that's his life's work. Where's the fun in that?"

In 1976 a fortunate confluence of events occurred. The Kosankes had recently moved to Grand Junction. Out-of-town friends were visiting, and Ken had read that the Pyrotechnics Guild International was holding its yearly meeting in nearby Grand Mesa. Eager for some entertainment, they attended.

After touring the exhibits and chatting with other attendees, Ken's old fascination in fireworks was rekindled. He and Bonnie, who holds a master's degree in biology, began dabbling; using old textbooks, they built their own fireworks. Eventually, others began calling on Ken as a pyrotechnics consultant. So Ken quit his physicist job with the U.S. Department of Energy and got into the business of distributing chemicals used in fireworks. He also built a lab and began doing research.

He quickly discovered that, unlike, say, elemental physics, the field of pyrotechnic research was wide open. You also didn't need a particle accelerator to get started. Basic questions remained a mystery, ready to be answered by the first guy there. Big bangs, for example.

"Usually the noise you create from an explosion is unwanted," Ken explains. "It makes people angry and rattles windows. But the opposite is true in fireworks. Therefore it's important to know things like, When we blow up something, how loud is it? How long did the blast last? Was it a sharp blast? How did people hear it?"

There was even practical research to be done. "When you set up a fireworks display, nobody knew how far away you should permit viewers," he says. "People would just guess." So for the past several years the Kosankes have designed and carried out a series of experiments that determine the safe circumference around a display--with the basic understanding, Ken explains, "that it's not a good idea for too many shells to fall into the crowd." After firing and measuring the trajectory of about 450 shells, says Ken, "we had information that no one else had."

Other core questions about recreational pyrotechnics wait to be answered. For instance, when a fireworks shell goes off, is it detonation--meaning an explosion--or is it deflagration--meaning a rapid burning? No one really knows. Apart from the theoretical puzzle, the question has practical implications: The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has stricter rules for materials that detonate (TNT, dynamite) than for those that deflagrate (gunpowder).

With so much elemental research to be done, the Kosankes realized they needed a forum. Issue No. 1 of the Journal of Pyrotechnics came out in the summer of 1995. With six articles ranging from "Concussion Mortar Internal Pressure, Recoil and Overpressure as Functions of Powder Mass" to "Introductory Chemistry for Pyrotechnists, Part 1: Atoms, Molecules and Their Interactions," it was a combination of The New England Journal of Medicine and a first-aid kit.

Since that time, the Kosankes have also published a series of essays/textbooks, modestly titled "Selected Pyrotechnic Publications of K.L. and B.J. Kosanke" and published in three parts (1981-1989, 1990-1992 and 1993-1994). The couple also has a pyrotechnics Web site, and their lengthy Illustrated History of Pyrotechnics has been favorably reviewed.

"The content of this volume is eclectic in the extreme," noted a reviewer in American Fireworks News. "It contains entries on all aspects of fireworks, from regulatory definitions to Italian and Japanese shell making. It also contains a large variety of terms used in rocketry which are not normally seen in the fireworks literature."

Happily, despite their attempts to bring dry science to pyrotechnics, most fireworks researchers say it is difficult to forget the wonderment that brought them to the subject. "It's hard to put into words," says Lockheed Martin's Anderson, who provides technical review for the Kosankes' journal. "But the central part is that you're taking something that's naturally destructive and using it for beauty. It's an artistic irony.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >