The eccentric engineer

E&T on the history of a piece of paper engineering that has become an essential part of one of the world's biggest annual celebrations.

In the midst of the February European drabness, let's cast a nostalgic look back at the festive season, with all its cheerful snaps, pops and crackles. Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without the groaning sighs of disappointment and faint smell of gunpowder in the air, all produced by that most British of Christmas inventions - the cracker.

The traditional cracker with its chemical 'snap', cringe-worthy 'joke', flimsy paper hat and often rather shoddy 'novelty' was not the invention of an engineer, sad to say, but rather a young confectioner. Yet the bringing together of different technologies created a marketing sensation that we might all learn from.

In 1830, Tom Smith started out in a bakery which also sold a sideline of confectionery and cake decorations. This was an era when the sweet business was not overly sophisticated and the stuff Smith was making was little more than gum pastilles and fondants, unwrapped and undecorated. It was a business ripe for development and, in 1840, Smith, having set up his own shop in Clerkenwell, London, took a holiday to the sweetie capital of the world, Paris, to search for inspiration. Here he stumbled upon the bonbonnier, a sugared almond like any other but wrapped in a twist of colourful waxed paper, turning it into a small present.

Smith loved the idea and back in London set about making his own bon-bons, which proved a great success that Christmas. After the holiday season, however,  demand suddenly dropped off and Smith was forced to fall back on his cakes. Clearly, his customers saw the tissue-wrapped bon-bons as a Christmas treat and he desperately needed to widen their appeal.

So, the first development in the birth of the cracker came along - the motto. Smith cannot be blamed for the appalling jokes in modern crackers. His idea was altogether more saucy - love mottoes. In each wrapper he placed a piece of paper with a provocative line such as:

"The sweet crimson rose with its beautiful hue is not half so deep as my passion for you."

This seemed to do the trick and soon regular orders were coming in for what were, in effect, tasty chat-up lines. It was then but a short step to add a trinket or keepsake to the package to go with the protestation of love, although this of course involved a re-engineering of the whole package. Now the sweet, trinket and motto were placed in a paper tube, which was then wrapped in a twist of paper to look like a large bon-bon.

There are only so many people in need of saucy sweeties, and Smith noted that he was still selling most of his wares at Christmas. It was one autumn, while sitting in front of the fire, according to Smith lore, that the great man came up with his most unusual but brilliant idea.

As he sat there wondering how to improve sales, he kicked a log on the fire which crackled and popped. In a revelatory moment, Smith realised that the logical next step in the development of his sweets was making the package burst apart with a bang to reveal its contents.

The unlikely alliance of paper, sweet, trinket and small explosive device was born. It took Smith two years to perfect the 'snap', early offerings either being so 'safe' as to be inaudible or so powerful that the cracker burst into flames. Finally, in 1860, the 'Bangs of Expectation' range was launched.

These were the first true crackers, although they were initially known as 'cosaques', as the 'snap' was supposedly reminiscent of the cracking sound the Cossacks made with their whips as they rode through Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Success was instant and by 1900 Smith's factory was making 13 million crackers a year.

However, these cosaques were not filled with mass-produced bits of plastic and corny jokes. Along with the love mottoes came topical ones, referring to current events and the arts and Shakespearean quotes. Trinkets, scoured from across the globe, included Bohemian bracelets, German scarf pins, miniature musical instruments, model landscapes and stereoscopic images presented in novelty boxes shaped as everything from a traveling trunk to one entitled 'Love in a Cottage'.

Nor were crackers yet seen as purely a Christmas item. Celebratory editions came about in the 1920s to mark the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun (the 'Treasures of Luxor' set) and Prince Edward's world tour - 'you've met the Prince, now pull the cracker!'.

Bespoke crackers were also made. In 1927, a gentleman wrote to the company enclosing a diamond ring asking that the ring be placed in a special cracker. Sadly, he forgot to include his address and the ring and money still lie unclaimed.

Since the Second World War, the story of the cracker has been one of relative decline. Austerity did away with elaborate packaging, Tom Smith was bought out, and recent revivals have added precious little new to the repertory.

The cracker is one of those brilliantly simple, but ingenious, ideas - a piece of paper engineering that has become an essential part of our festive celebrations. But no real developments have come since the days of Smith himself and, if the cracker is to survive, it needs a new twist.

Surely, it can't be beyond the wit of the learned E&T readers to come up with an improved cracker - something to make old Tom proud.

Send your ideas of improved crackers to vvitaliev@theiet.org.

Winner of our last caption competition is Jason Bewley, who spotted that we'd inadvertantly cropped Alfred Loomis from the edge of the photo of staff at his New York laboratory and suggested: "Take a step back. I'm not in the picture yet!".

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