Why Are Bottles of Champagne Smashed On New Ships?

Evgeniy_P/iStock via Getty Images
Evgeniy_P/iStock via Getty Images

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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

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To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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How Do Astronauts Vote From Space?

Astronaut Kate Rubins casts her ballot from space.
Astronaut Kate Rubins casts her ballot from space.
NASA

Earlier this week, NASA announced that astronaut Kate Rubins had officially cast her vote from a makeshift voting booth aboard the International Space Station. As much as we’d like to believe her ballot came back to Earth in a tiny rocket, the actual transmission was much more mundane. Basically, it got sent to her county clerk as a PDF.

As NASA explains, voting from space begins the same way as voting abroad. Astronauts, like military members and other American citizens living overseas, must first submit a Federal Postcard Application (FPCA) to request an absentee ballot. Once approved, they can blast off knowing that their ballot will soon follow.

After the astronaut’s county clerk completes a practice round with folks at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, they can start the real voting process. The astronaut will then receive two electronic documents: a password-protected ballot sent by the Space Center’s mission control center, and an email with the password sent by the county clerk. The astronaut then “downlinks” (sends via satellite signal) their filled-out ballot back to the Space Center attendants, who forward it to the county clerk. Since the clerk needs a password to open the ballot, they’re the only other person who sees the astronaut’s responses. Then, as NPR reports, they copy the votes onto a regular paper ballot and submit it with the rest of them.

Though Americans have been visiting space for more than half a century, the early jaunts weren’t long enough to necessitate setting up a voting system from orbit. That changed in 1996, when John Blaha missed out on voting in the general election because his spaceflight to Russia’s space station Mir began in September—before absentee voters received their ballots—and he didn’t return until January 1997. So, as The Washington Post reports, NASA officials collaborated with Texas government officials to pass a law allowing astronauts to cast their ballots from space. In the fall of 1997, David Wolf became the first astronaut to submit his vote from a space station. The law is specific to Texas because most active astronauts reside there, but NASA has said that the process can be done from other states if need be.