Having your Can, and Eating it

By Elaine Ng - Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Some of us may know when and how canned food first came about, but did you know – the first truly handy can opener was invented only half a century after the deal was sealed?
According to Gordon L. Robertson’s Food Packaging: Principles and Practice, the first mention of food preserved by canning was by the Dutch Navy as early as in 1772. A small canned salmon industry existed also in Netherlands in the 1800s, boiling the popular local catch in brine and smoking it before the final step of canning.
The first massive production of canned food, however, was born as a war necessity, added author Bee Wilson in his book Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. Two years into what seemed would be an extended war with the British in 1795, the French government led by Napoleon sought a practical way to preserve food as a much-needed means to upkeep the military.
A then-hefty grand prize of 12,000 francs was put up to whoever could come up with the best way of preserving food. French confectioner Nicolas Appert won the prize with his airtight method of conserving food such as fruits, vegetables and stews in sealed champagne bottles heated in baths of hot water.
The little known inventor of the canning method published a book detailing his methods in 1810. Two months later, Englishman Peter Durand patented a similar method of preserving food in sealed containers heated in steam – with the usage of tin cans instead of fragile glass bottles giving a marked improvement.
Appert lost the right to patent his own product and died a pauper.
But even 50 years after the invention of tin cans in the 1860s, instructions on how to open the bulky, thick and heavy cans remained horrendously impractical – “Cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer.” This largely confined the use of canned food to the army.
As with dangerous weapons no different from rifles such as the M16 and AK47, the military-use can openers were accorded mysteriously deadly sounding names like P-38 and P-51. Interestingly, by coincidence, these two models share the exact same name with two makes of fighter planes.
Later in the 1860s, thinner steel cans emerged as canning proved to be handy for general food preservation, whether during wartime or otherwise. The lever-type can opener invented in 1870 opened cans, but the dangerously sharp sickle that comes attached made it unfit for domestic use. The rotating wheel can opener, which first appeared in the US market, quickly overtook it.
And finally, in 1925, a second serrated wheel added to hold the original cutting wheel allowed a firm grip and relatively clean edges on can openings. As an efficient and safe design, it remains the can opener of choice to-date. Electric can openers with a similar design but grew immensely popular in the 1950s, with the growing need for speed and convenience. But all this won’t be for long.
The fate of the can opener is ironically about to come to a full circle. Now with pull-top “keys” on pre-serrated cans populating the shelves, it won’t be long before we will not need can openers after all!

Images by Elaine Ng @ Makansutra