WHO INVENTED THE CHRISTMAS CRACKER?
Christmas crackers were invented by Tom Smith, a London confectioner, in the 1840s. On a field trip to Paris Tom discovered Bon-Bons (sugared almonds wrapped in bright paper that was sealed with a twist at either end) were wildly popular, so Tom decided to try and sell them in London. He also included a message or riddle inside each one to add interest, but they didn't catch on.
One night Tom was sat in front of his fire thinking how the cracking noises from the burning logs captured his attention and thought it may improve the attraction of his sweets if they made a similar noise as they were unwrapped.
He increased the size of the paper wrapper to incorporate a banger mechanism and the modern day cracker was born.
Tom originally called them cosaques after the noise made when Cossack soldiers cracked their whips as they rode, but as rival brands diluted the market, the onomatopoeic 'cracker' evolved into the preferred generic term.
Crackers were originally produced for all occasions, but only the crackers made for Christmas took off. The sweets they contained were eventually dropped in favour of toys and trinkets which proved more popular.
WHAT ARE CHRISTMAS CRACKERS MADE OF?
A cracker consists of a cardboard tube with bright coloured paper wrapped around it and tied at each end. Running through the centre of the cracker is a very small explosive mechanism called a snap, which is glued to either end of the cracker.
The snap is made from two strips of card whose ends are glued together. One strip is covered in silver fulminate, an explosive chemical compound, and the other is covered in sandpaper.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PULL A CHRISTMAS CRACKER?
When two people pull the cracker in opposing directions, the pressure exerted on the wrapping paper causes it to tear at it's weakest point, which is at either end of the central chamber. This leaves one person holding the central chamber as well as their end.
WHY DO CHRISTMAS CRACKERS GO BANG?
One strip of the cracker's snap is impregnated with a tiny amount of silver fulminate and the other strip is covered with abrasive sandpaper. When the cracker is pulled, the friction of the sandpaper creates sufficient heat to cause the silver fulminate to explode, producing the satisfying crack that we associate so closely with Christmas.
Silver fulminate is a highly unstable, explosive compound with the chemical formula AgCNO. It comprises a single molecule of four different elements: Silver (Ag), Carbon (C), Nitrogen (N) and Oxygen (O) and is made by mixing nitric acid with silver and ethanol.
The CNO part of the compound, the fulminate ion, is very unstable and extremely combustible. In fact it is so explosive that it has little practical use apart from crackers and bangers, no more than a few milligrams of it can exist together at the same time or it's own weight would cause it to spontaneously combust.
CHRISTMAS CRACKER PULLING STRATEGY
You can't guarantee you'll always win the prize in a Christmas cracker because the wrapping paper may just be weaker at your end of the cracker. That said, you can maximise your chances of winning by following a few simple steps that reduce the pressure on the paper at your end of the cracker:
* Hold your end lower than the other person’s, so the cracker tilts downwards towards you
* Use a firm, two-handed grip
* Apply a slow, steady pull, rather than a swift tug
* Avoid twisting, as this will add stress to the cracker wrapping
1. World's longest Christmas cracker - measured 63.1m (207 feet) long and 4m (13 feet) in diameter) and was made by the parents of children at Ley Hill School and Pre-School in Chesham, Buckinghamshire on 20th December 2001.
2. World's biggest Christmas cracker pull - was done by 1,478 people at an event organised by Honday Japan in Tochigi Japan on 18th October 2009.
3. Most Christmas crackers pulled by two people in one minute - is 63, achieved by Samuel Mayer and Andre Ortolf in Augsburg, Germany, on 14 February 2016.
Tom Smith's company still produces the highest quality Christmas crackers and holds royal warrants from both Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales. We think so highly of them that we've used their crackers as the main image for this journal and recommend you visit their website tomsmith-crackers.com.
Be sure to raise a glass to Tom Smith as you pull crackers this Christmas and spread your knowledge of silver fulminate. It'll be a well received alternative to enduring the jokes that the crackers contain.