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Playing with Fire

Pyrotechnics Expert Talks NYE Fireworks: History, Evolution and More

New Year’s Eve is a unifying celebration, with people all over the world coming together through shared drunkenness, countdowns, and fireworks. Pyrotechnic expert Jesse Veverka talks to NoDef about the history of the explosive show stoppers, and about their evolution.   


Although New Orleanians eschew the ball drop for the fleur-de-lis, New Year's Eve is one of the city's more traditional celebrations. A free fireworks show along the Mississippi River ushers in the new year every January 1. 


Jesse Veverka is currently making a documentary called Passfire, an exploration of firework cultures across the globe.


According to Veverka, “passfire” is the technical term for the device in fireworks that transfers the flame from one piece to another.


“It also conveys the idea of passing fireworks knowledge around the world, from generation to generation,” said Veverka.


Many consider the large scale light displays as a modern invention, but Veverka said that the first fireworks came into being nearly a thousand years ago.


“One thing to keep in mind about fireworks is that this is a craft, a trade and a tradition that goes back over a thousand years,” said Veverka.


China is credited with inventing gunpowder, and eventually the world’s first firecracker. To this day, China produces about 90 percent of all of the world's fireworks, according to Veverka. The United States produces very few of them. 


“Then it was mostly just firecrackers, and through trades with China, Europeans started developing the precursor to modern fireworks,” explained Veverka.


Now, professional fireworks users can create a sensory experience with very little physical exertion. However, the process was a lot more taxing just a few decades earlier.


“It used to be done all by hand,” said Veverka. “There were guys that would run down the firing line and light the fuses.” Veverka said modern firework techniques emerged around the early 1980’s.


“Through the advents of digital electronics and computerized firing systems, now you can fire the shells by a pre programed electric sequence, with wires running out to each of these tubes,” said Veverka. “There is a script, programmed into the firing system, and it would fire in sequence.”


By the early 1990’s, many people would choreograph the explosive sequences to music.


“It’s gotten more and more popular,” said Veverka. “The timing and the intricacy has gotten better. It’s very precise,” he said.


Veverka said that modern fireworks techniques are also more eco-conscious. 


"The chipped shells are a recent edition to fireworks technology. There are a few changes to the chemical compositions that makes them more environmentally friendly," explained Veverka. 


Chipped shells are an electronic timer that begins when the fireworks are released into the air, Veverka explained.


"In larger shows, there are maybe 100 [chipped shells] going up into the air all at once...everything in shows these days is fired electronically." 


The biggest fireworks show in the world happens in Dubai, according to Veverka. Large-scale shows last up to 45 minutes, said the expert.


Along the Mississippi, New Orleanians can enjoy a free 10-minute light display when the clock strikes midnight, organized by the Crescent City Countdown Club. Festivities kick off at 9 p.m. in Jackson Square, with free shows from Eric Lindell until 10p.m. and the Honey Island Swamp Band from 10:30 p.m. to 11:45 p.m.


Following the music, a recently renovated, 8 ft. by 5 ft. fleur-de-lis, covered in LED lights, will drop from the 25 ft. pole that sits on top of JAZ Brewery. Then, a "New Year Board" full of 200 25-watt bulbs will announce the beginning of 2014. 


The music will be simulcast on Magic 101.9 FM, WWL AM and FM, and The light show will be sychronized with "soulful New Orleans music," followed by the fight songs from Oklahoma and Alabama, in honor of Thursday's Sugar Bowl. 



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