The History of the Sparkler, July 4th's Lamest (But Secretly Most Dangerous) Firework

What’s actually making those sparks, anyway?


We’ve all waved a sparkler around on a warm July 4th evening, perhaps either trying to write our name in the air in magical glowing letters, or perhaps just trying to draw a rude doodle in the same manner, depending on your age/inebriation level. But where did these things come from?

Illuminating History
While handheld fireworks are thought to have been invented by Greek architect Callinicus of Heliopolis (the inventor of the legendary but mysterious Greek Fire) some time in the 7th century, the sparkler as we know it is based on a German design from the 1850s. The wunderkerzen was a piece of wire dipped in a mixture of iron and gunpowder, which sounds super safe.

A Light Recipe
Although safer, sparklers haven’t changed much—they’re still made by dipping a wire rod into a combustible paste. This is made up of some kind of metallic fuel that creates the sparks; an oxidizing agent, like potassium nitrate, that helps it to burn; a fuel, like sulfur, to modify the burning speed; and a flammable binder, like dextrin, to hold it all together in your wildly flailing hands.

Flying Colors
Remember that metallic fuel we mentioned? It changes depending what color you want the sparkler to burn. Titanium, aluminum and magnesium produce white sparks, while iron gives off orange sparks and ferrotitanium results in yellow-gold sparks. Who knew chemistry could be so pretty?

Slow Burn
Sparklers can burn anywhere from 1,800°F to 3,000°F—to put that in perspective, iron melts at 2,800°F. It’s no surprise, then, that sparklers are responsible for 16 percent of (legal) firework-related injuries in the U.S., and 57 percent of injuries involving kids under five. In other words, maybe you should show that pretty sparkle-stick a little more respect.