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Why Are Bottles of Champagne Smashed On New Ships?

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Before a ship slides from its berth into the water, it must first get hit on—by a bottle of booze, usually champagne. Here’s the lowdown on the history and physics of smashing some bubbly and launching a ship.

Launch Party

The tradition of christening a new ship for good luck and safe travel goes way back. Many ancient seafaring societies had their own ceremonies for launching a new ship. The Greeks wore olive branch wreaths around their heads, drank wine to honor the gods, and poured water on the new boat to bless it. The Babylonians sacrificed an ox, the Turks sacrificed a sheep, and the Vikings and Tahitians offered up human blood.

These events almost always had a religious tone to them, and the name of a favored god or god of the seas was often invoked. In the Middle Ages, two friars would often board British ships before their maiden voyage to pray, lay their hands on the masts and sprinkle holy water on the deck and bow.

The religious aspect of ship christening died off in Protestant Europe after the Reformation, especially in Great Britain. Some member of the royalty or nobility would instead join the crew for a secular ceremony of drinking from the “standing cup”—a large goblet, usually made of precious metal and fitted with a foot and a cover—and solemnly calling the ship by her name. After taking a drink, the presiding official would pour what liquid was left onto the deck or over the bow and then toss the cup over the side of the vessel, to be caught by a lucky bystander (or sink into the ocean). As Britain became a maritime power and its growing navy required more ships, the practice of discarding the expensive cups fell out of favor. For a while, they were caught in a net for reuse, but eventually, the whole ceremony was replaced by the breaking of a wine bottle across the ship’s bow.

Beverage Choices

Ship christening in the young United States borrowed from contemporary English tradition. The launch of the USS Constitution in 1797 included the captain breaking a bottle of Madeira wine on its bow. Over the next century, the ritual of breaking or pouring of some “christening fluid” remained, but the fluid itself varied wildly. The USS Princeton, Raritan and Shamrock were all christened with whiskey. The USS New Ironsides was double-christened, first with a bottle of brandy and then with Madeira. Other ships were teetotalers, and launched with water or grape juice. The USS Hartford was christened three times, with water from the Atlantic Ocean, the Connecticut River and Hartford Spring. The USS Kentucky was launched with spring water by her official sponsor, but as the battleship slipped into the water, onlookers gave her a baptism more fitting of her namesake state and bashed small bottles of bourbon against her sides.

It’s not clear how champagne came to be the favored fluid. The Secretary of the Navy’s granddaughter christened the USS Maine, the Navy's first steel battleship, with champagne in 1890. The shift to that particular sparkling wine might have been meant to coincide with the new era of steel, or it may just have just come into vogue because of association with power and elegance.

When Prohibition went into effect in the U.S., ships went sober again and were launched with water, juice or, in at least one case, apple cider. Champagne came back with the passage of the 21st Amendment and has stuck around since.

Heavy Hitter

Champagne bottles are basically booze-filled tanks. They have to stand up to the enormous pressure the wine creates inside them,  so their glass is very thick, and breaking them is no easy task. But, as Mark Miodownik, a material scientist at King's College London, told the BBC, it only takes a small defect, a slight imperfection in the glass, to compromise a bottle’s strength. He points out that bigger bottles have a higher probability of a natural defect, but any size bottle can be prodded along towards breaking if the wine has bigger bubbles, and hence more internal pressure. If ever you find yourself stuck christening a ship with a bottle that can take a beating, P&O (the British shipping and logistics company) chairman Sir John Parker, quoted in the same piece, suggests scoring the bottle with a glass cutter to to weaken it.

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Big Questions
Why Is Soda Measured in Liters?
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Never a nation to fall in line, America is one of the few countries to resist the metric system. We stubbornly measure distance in miles and weight in pounds. So what’s with those two-liter bottles of soda?

First, a clarification: Soda is far from the only substance we measure in metric units. Heck, it’s not even the only beverage. Wine, liquor, and bottled water are sold by the milliliter. The healthcare field is all about metric units, too, from cholesterol levels to prescription, over-the-counter, and supplement dosages. We run 5-kilometer races, ride on 215-millimeter tires, and use 8-millimeter cameras, or at least we used to.

In most other things, we determinedly cling to our imperial measurements. Attempts to convince Americans to join the rest of the metric-measuring world have been met with great resistance.

Ken Butcher of the National Institute of Science and Technology has been working with the government’s tiny Metric Program for years. Speaking to Mental Floss back in 2013, Butcher explained that we’re so entrenched in our way of doing things that switching measurement systems now would be both chaotic and expensive.

"If we were going to start a new country all with the metric system, it would be easy," he said. "But when you have to go in and change almost everything that touches people’s everyday life and their physical and mental experience, their education, and then you take that away from them—it can be scary."

Here and there, though, when it’s convenient, we have been willing to budge. The soda bottle is a good example. Until 1970, all soft drinks in the U.S. were sold in fluid ounces and gallons, mostly in glass bottles. Then the plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle came along, and soft drink makers decided it was time for a product redesign.

The redesign process coincided with two key factors: a short-lived wave of government interest in going metric, and the burgeoning environmental movement.

The folks at PepsiCo decided to meld all three into its exciting new vessel: a lightweight, cheap, recyclable, metric bottle, with built-in fins so it could stand up on supermarket shelves. Two liters: the soda size of the future.

The two-liter bottle took off. The rest of the soft drink world had no choice but to get on board. And voila: liters of cola for all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Where Is the Hottest Place on Earth?
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The summer of 2017 will go down as an endurance test of sorts for the people of Phoenix, Arizona. The National Weather Service issued an extreme heat warning, and planes were grounded as a result of temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. (Heat affects air density, which in turn affects a plane’s lift.)

Despite those dire measures, Phoenix is not the hottest place on Earth. And it’s not even close.

That dubious honor was bestowed on the Lut Desert in Iran in 2005, when land temperatures were recorded at a staggering 159.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The remote area was off the grid—literally—for many years until satellites began to measure temperatures in areas that were either not well trafficked on foot or not measured with the proper instruments. Lut also measured record temperatures in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2009.

Before satellites registered Lut as a contender, one of the hottest areas on Earth was thought to be El Azizia, Libya, where a 1922 measurement of 136 degrees stood as a record for decades. (Winds blowing from the nearby Sahara Desert contributed to the oppressive heat.)

While the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) acknowledged this reading as the hottest on record for years, they later declared that instrumentation problems and other concerns led to new doubts about the accuracy.

Naturally, declaring the hottest place on Earth might be about more than just a single isolated reading. If it’s consistency we’re after, then the appropriately-named Death Valley in California, where temperatures are consistently 90 degrees or above for roughly half the year and at least 100 degrees for 140 days annually, has to be a contender. A blistering temperature of 134 degrees was recorded there in 1913.

Both Death Valley and Libya were measured using air temperature readings, while Lut was taken from a land reading, making all three pretty valid contenders. These are not urban areas, and paving the hottest place on Earth with sidewalks would be a very, very bad idea. Temperatures as low as 95 degrees can cause blacktop and pavement to reach skin-scorching temperatures of 141 degrees.

There are always additional factors to consider beyond a temperature number, however. In 2015, Bandar Mahshahr in Iran recorded temperatures of 115 degrees but a heat index—what it feels like outside when accounting for significant humidity—of an astounding 163 degrees. That thought might be one of the few things able to cool Phoenix residents off.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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