Thought Leadership


By Colin Walls

I have a love/hate relationship with fireworks. On the one hand, they are an exciting spectacle and it is hard not to stand and watch a display. On the other hand, I always ponder how much money is, literally, going up in smoke.

Although fireworks have been around a very long time – I believe the Chinese invented them about a thousand years ago – they have changed a lot during my lifetime. That change has been in technology, of course, but also in the culture of fireworks [here in the UK anyway]. But, of late, there has been some very negative views of fireworks that make me think about their place in our society …

When I was a kid, “Fireworks Night” was 5 November. This is the date on which we commemorate the foiling of a major terrorist plot 400 years ago. In much the same was as on 4 July in the US, this was the one time that we would have fireworks. Back then, it was typical to have a display in the back yard. My parents would buy a box of fireworks – just choosing them in the shop was part of the excitement. I seem to recall that my maternal grandparents would also contribute some. I had an indulgent great uncle [a sort of surrogate grandfather] who would also bring along some “serious” fireworks – usually big rockets. I recall that my father, who was very safety conscious, would set up the means to ignite and display the fireworks at a safe distance from the house. One year, one of his rocket launchers failed and fell over. The rocket shot along the ground and exploded by the neighbor’s garden wall. That was very exciting. It would have been a different matter if it had shot towards the house!

Since those days, two things have changed: the how and the when.

It is much less common for people to have displays in their gardens nowadays. Partly that is a “health and safety” matter, partly cost, but also because there are many public displays, which may be even be free of charge. Given that a display may be enjoyed by hundreds of people, pooling resources makes a lot of sense.

Fireworks are no longer confined to the one date. Displays seem to occur on convenient days a week either side of 5 Nov. They also seem to happen at many other times – whenever someone wishes to have a celebration: weddings, birthdays, New Year and the end of events like arts festivals are all common. Also, in an increasingly multi-cultural society, other special days are celebrated in this way; Diwali being one that comes to mind.

I suppose that there is nothing wrong with having all these displays at different times. What is the problem with people having a good time? I find it a bit annoying when they occur late in the evening, but that is all. However, there is a big problem. Many animals get upset by the noise of fireworks – domestic cats and dogs particularly, but also horses and farm animals. If the displays are on just a few evenings, the owners of animals can take measures to protect them. But if fireworks can be let off at almost any time, they do not have a chance.

I did not feel too strongly about this initially. I have a slightly relaxed approach to animal rights – I do not advocate cruelty, but excessive anthropomorphizing is almost as bad. However, I then discovered that every year a significant number of “guide dogs” [invaluable for blind and deaf people] are so traumatized by fireworks that they can no longer work. Training such animals is very expensive and all that money is lost. The upset caused to owners is impossible to quantify. I have, therefore, arrived at the view that firework displays should be limited. In general, there should be only a handful of specific, widely-publicized dates on which the use of fireworks may be permitted. There may also be designated [somewhat remote] sites, where displays could take place at any time. These measures would, I believe, address the problem effectively. Opinions and input via comment or email would be welcome.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at