Christmas Cracker Chemistry!

The Christmas cracker first appeared in 1847 thanks to a baker named Tom Smith. However, the crackers then were very different to how they are today.

(Cracker pulling can get brutal. Photograph: Mel Yates/Getty Images)

Smith was on a trip to Paris when he came across the ‘bon bon’, a single sugared almond that was sealed in tissue paper that was twisted at either end, much like many of the boiled sweets that you find today. On his return to London, Smith decided to sell these sweets and modified the packaging by adding love quotes that were hidden in the tissue paper, which I should imagine were much more profound than the excruciating jokes found in crackers today.

Later on, Smith decided that his sweets needed a bit more pizazz and added an explosive feature to the sweets, inspired by the crack of a log that he threw into his fire at home.

A while after, he removed the sweet element and the ‘bon bon’ name completely and replaced it with a surprise gift, naming his new invention the ‘Cosaque’, which is what would form the foundations of the Christmas crackers that we have on our dinner tables today. The onomatopoeic name ‘cracker’ was soon adopted as rival companies emerged and the name has stuck ever since.

Smith created a vast array of crackers, with designs including Wedgewood artwork and Japanese Menagerie, which contained the latest novelties manufactured in Japan such as animals and even the mottoes were in Japanese.

Interestingly, the cracker snap mechanism has even been used in military training as the Ministry of Defence commissioned Smith to tie together bundles of these cracker snaps, as when pulled, the sound resembled that of machine gun fire and were used as a training tool.

Smith’s company was always very conscious of current affairs and crackers were made especially for war heroes, Charlie Chaplin, and even for Coronations.

What about the science I hear you cry? What gives a cracker its signature noise?

We have our dear friend Chemistry to thank!

Many of you who have experienced a failed cracker will know that there are two strips of cardboard within the main body of the cracker, known as the cracker snap, which when pulled apart create the bang that we so long to hear.

One of these strips contains a tiny amount of the sensitive compound called sliver fulminate (AgCNO), made by the reaction of nitric acid with silver and ethanol. The corresponding strip is coated with sandpaper, whose rough surface creates friction upon pulling, generating heat, which warms up the silver fulminate, causing the loud crack!

Crackers have a rich history and have remained popular for over 150 years and we have the simple ‘bon bon’ to thank for the spark of inspiration that led to the explosive fun that we share with our family and friends today!

Have a cracking Christmas!

#LaurenNuttall #Christmas #Chemistry #ChristmasCrackers

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