While technically it is possible to trace crackers well back into human history, the modern cracker was born, so it’s said, in 1801, when a fellow by the name of Josiah Bent began manufacturing what he called “water crackers” for seafarers at a plant he built in Milton, Massachusetts. Though militaries had employed severely dried out breads (usually twice-baked breads, or “biscuits”) for nearly two thousand years by then, Bent’s crackers were different in that they were made from a simple flour-and-water paste that was baked only once at a very low temperature for an extended period of time.
The result was a “bread” that was hard as a rock and tasted nearly as good. Still, it wasn’t long before the utility of Bent’s technique became apparent to militaries on both sides of the Atlantic. By the mid-1800’s contract manufacturers were producing this dreadful stuff by the ton. Long custom ovens were even built specifically for the purpose. Thick, serving-sized portions of flour paste would enter one end and pass slowly through the oven over a period of hours, emerging at the other end with a consistency not unlike a ceramic tile. The tooth-shattering treats were then packed and distributed to all branches of major militaries where they became variously known as “hard tack”, “sea biscuits”, “ship biscuits” and, when flying technology eventually came along, “pilot bread.”
Of course those were the more generous terms for the stuff. Bent probably had it right from the start when he called his product “crackers”, evidently an onomatopoetic term for the sound they made between the teeth. Ouch.