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People used hammers and chisels to open up tin cans until the can opener was invented

Brad Smithfield

Apparently, the almighty can opener was invented 48 long years after tin cans. Peter Durand, the successful British merchant, didn’t think this through when King George III granted him the patent for food-preserving tin cans.

The idea for better food preservation was initiated during the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th-century, when Napoleon struggled with supplying fresh food for his troops. To thwart this frustrating problem, he offered 12 thousand francs for whoever invents a better preservation method which successfully prevents food spoilage.

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz by François Gérard, 2nd December 1805. One of the most important battles of the Napoleonic Wars and it is regarded as Napoleon’s greatest victory, defeating a much larger Russian and Austrian army led by Tsar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz by François Gérard, 2nd December 1805. One of the most important battles of the Napoleonic Wars and it is regarded as Napoleon’s greatest victory, defeating a much larger Russian and Austrian army led by Tsar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II

Nicholas Appert was such an inventor, delving deep into experiments with different foods for 15 years. His brilliant idea was that in order to preserve food that stays fresh for a long period, one must tightly seal the food with wax and a cork in a heated container. Although having no idea how this worked, in 1810 he won Napoleon’s 12 thousand francs.

The same year, Peter Durand, a British merchant, received a patent from King George III for his invention, the tin can on August 25th, 1810. He combined Appert’s idea for sterilizing and heating which resulted in discovering a modern, fool-proof way of food preservation.

Portrait of Nicolas Appert, chef, confectioner, and inventor of food canning in 1795, anonymous woodcut, circa 1841

Portrait of Nicolas Appert, chef, confectioner, and inventor of food canning in 1795, anonymous woodcut, circa 1841

When the food preservation problem was finally solved, all that was left was to find a way to open the thick cans.

Appert’s glass container in which food was heated and kept  Photo Credit

Appert’s glass container in which food was heated and kept  Photo Credit

People used hammers, chisels, and sheer brute force to get the cans opened. The thick cans were hard to manufacture as the skilled worker could produce only 7 per hour. The cans weren’t popular enough for commercial and daily household use.

Throughout the ages, there have been many improvements and inventive ways of perfecting the tin can. Many inventors like Henry Evans, Allen Taylor, and Thomas Kensett, have contributed to the production of thinner cans, less use of materials, and greatly improving the manufacturing process.

A sketch from the can opener patent Number 19063 by Ezra Warner. It was the first practical can opener known as the “bayonet and sickle” type in 1858

A sketch from the can opener patent Number 19063 by Ezra Warner. It was the first practical can opener known as the “bayonet and sickle” type in 1858

After almost half a century, in 1858, Ezra Warner introduced the first “bayonet and sickle” can opener, ending the use of the frustrating hammers and chisels. The bayonet punctured the tin and the sickle opened the lid.

The modernized version of the classic can opener was introduced by William Lyman in 1870. His design was undoubtedly the most simple method, a wheel which rolled around the rim of the can, cutting it open as it passed through.

William Worcester Lyman (1821 – 1891) American inventor from Meriden, Connecticut. He was awarded with several US patents for perfecting and improving household items

William Worcester Lyman (1821 – 1891) American inventor from Meriden, Connecticut. He was awarded with several US patents for perfecting and improving household items

It takes approximately 95% less energy and cost for factories to produce a tin can from recycled aluminum than from aluminum ores. Recycling aluminum cans may help in saving 18 million barrels of oil (which is about 10 billion kilowatt/h electricity) if we created cans from recycled aluminum.

Here is another story from us: Eight great inventions from ancient times

The legacy of the tin can inventors and the can opener contributors of the 19th century says, “there is always a better way to do it”.