The tin can is still going strong after all these years, remaining one of the most common methods of food preservation all over the world, despite huge advances in technology since its inception.
Similar to the chicken and the egg controversy, there seems to be a shroud of questions around what came first when it comes to the can or can opener.
This seems like a pretty obvious question to answer. After all, why would a tool used to open a specific storage item be invented prior to the storage item itself?
In fact, not only was the can opener invented after the can, it didn’t appear, in even the most rudimentary form, until almost 50 years after the first commercial use of the can.
This begs the question, how were cans opened in the interim, and why did it take so long for a specific solution?
Let’s start with a brief recap of the history behind the tin can and the different ways in which it has been opened over the years.
Who invented the tin can?
The process of preserving food in tin cans was adopted by the Dutch navy at least as early as the 1770’s. Sailors needed a way of keeping supplies of food fresh over extended periods of time away at sea, and the tin can was the perfect solution.
The idea for the commercial use of tin cans, however, has been attributed to a Frenchman named Nicolas Appert. Known as the “father of canning”, he experimented with preserving foodstuffs in 1795 using glass containers.
After a directive by a famous Frenchman, Napolean Bonaparte, to find a solution for long term food preservation for his navy, Nicolas presented his findings in the early 1800’s and was awarded a significant amount of money for his new method. He obviously hadn’t got wind of the Dutch navy’s metal can methods just yet.
Moving on, it didn’t take long for glass containers to be replaced with metal cans. A British merchant named Peter Durand patented the idea, and rather than pursuing food canning himself, he sold the patent to Bryan Donkin and John Hall.
These two refined the process and established the first commercial canning factory in Southwark, London, in 1812. By 1820, the British Admiralty was placing considerable orders with the factory for meat preserved in tinned iron canisters.
For years, these cans were so thick that they could only be opened using a chisel and hammer (tools you and I would more commonly associate with a carpenters workshop rather than the kitchen), and indeed, manufacturers listed this technique as their advised method.
Only as the manufacturing process became more sophisticated and the cans became thinner, did efforts to invent a specific can opening device come to the fore. Hence the lengthy gap between the first tin cans and a specific device used to open them.
Who invented the tin can opener?
The earliest can opener wasn’t patented until the middle of the 1850’s, some 40 or so years after the first commercial canning factory commenced production, and a full 70 years after the first use of the tin can to preserve food by the Dutch navy.
These early can openers, devised in 1855 and 1858, by cutlery and surgical instrument maker named Robert Yeates, in England, and by Ezra Warner in the US, respectively, were very simple. Both operated using a lever-type system with a blade to cut into the lid of the can and a guard to prevent the knife from piercing the can itself. Both, however, were dangerous, with the US version, consequently, confined to military use only.
It wasn’t until 1870 that the more familiar rotating cutting wheel was invented by William Lyman, but even then, the design was considered very difficult to operate for the ordinary consumer and as a result, didn’t last the test of time.
A second serrated wheel was added to designs by Charles Arthur Bunker during the mid-1920’s in order to help hold the cutting wheel in place. And so, the modern-day kitchen standard can opener was finally born, some 150 years after the first use of the tin can for food preservation.
Not only then was the tin can invented prior to the tin can opener, but curiously, the tool used to open the can didn’t appear until well after the use of tins to preserve food was considered mainstream.
The electric can opener
The first electric can opener was patented in 1931, based on the hugely successful cutting wheel design. These initial forays into the automated sector were largely unsuccessful, despite promises of the capacity to remove lids from more than 20 cans per minute. Whilst electric openers were reintroduced in the 1950s by two Californian based companies, consumers were again left disappointed.
Clearly, the quality and simplicity of a manual can opener is still the preferred method of opening cans by consumers around the world.
Today, the can opener is a staple in anyone’s kitchen. There are literally thousands of different models to choose from. We can confidently say that the can opener is here to stay well into the future.
Key facts and figures:
- The first use of tin cans to preserve food occurred in the 1770s amongst the Dutch navy.
- The first commercial canning process didn’t start until the second decade of the 1800s.
- A can opener that closely resembles what most modern households use today was invented in the 1920s by Charles Arthur Bunker .
- Pull-tab cans (the ones you find holding soft drink, beer and other beverages) were invented in 1963 by Emie Fraze. Up until that point, beverage cans were opened using a church key (a type of can opener) or can-piercer.
- Electric can openers have never really been able to usurp the use of the handheld dual wheel cutting device, despite huge advances in technology. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!