Enlarge / Within the 19th century, a long time after the invention of canning, there have been just about no can openers. Canned meals, like these sardines, got here with its personal “key” to peel again the tin lid.

Wikimedia Commons

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, odds are that you just watched an ideal purple cylinder of cranberry sauce wobble itself out of a can right into a bowl. Or perhaps you shook a bunch of mushy peas from a can right into a pot. It appears easy sufficient immediately, however generations of technological innovation went into making that canned meals accessible to you. The grime-covered can opener you fish out of a drawer on vacation weekends is the results of a long time of engineering—and quite a lot of cut-up fingers.

Delivery of the can

One of many oddest issues in regards to the can opener is that the can predates it by nearly 150 years. Although widespread immediately, cans had been as soon as military-grade expertise. In 1795, Napoleon, to whom the phrase “a military marches on its abdomen” is attributed, supplied 12,000 francs to anybody who may discover a technique to protect meals. With none data of micro organism or their function in meals spoilage, scientists did not even know the place to start. It took 15 years earlier than a chef named Nicholas Appert claimed the prize after efficiently jarring meals. Quickly after that, his countryman Philippe de Girard got here up with a variant on Appert’s methodology—metallic tins—and bought the thought to the British.

Spoiled meals, and the illness it triggered, was a widespread downside. The general public would have benefited from canned meals, however for many years cans had been nearly solely for the military and the navy. The canning course of, with its hours of boiling and steaming, its scrupulous cleanliness, its heated metallic, and its want for a substantial amount of disposable materials, made canned meals far too costly for anybody however the navy. No can openers had been wanted and even doable. The metallic of early cans was too thick to make openers sensible. Troopers and sailors had loads of sharp objects readily available and made ample use of them once they wished to eat.

Enlarge / A typical late-19th-century-style tin of corned beef with a key (beef pictured just isn’t really from the 19th century).

Rainer Zenz

In the course of the 19th century, the method of canning was refined and mechanized, and the metallic wall of the common can slimmed down sufficient that a civilian may get it open—if that civilian had the correct device. Nobody had that device but, so early cans needed to open themselves. In different phrases, they got here with built-in openers.

The outcome was a complicated however pleasing free-for-all, by way of product engineering. Every kind of meals got here with its personal form of can, and every form of can got here with its personal form of opener. Tinned fish and meat had been usually bought in rectangular cans. These cans had been fitted with a “key” that may roll down the highest of the can. Espresso, beans, and different kinds of meat had been packaged in cylinders with metallic strips that might be peeled again with their very own sorts of built-in keys. Cans of milk, which did not have to be utterly opened, got here with puncture units.

As tinned meals turned extra widespread, its containers turned extra common. A pleasant cylindrical can turned the norm, and, as these cans crammed kitchens, extra engineers put their minds to discovering a handy technique to open all of them.

The bully beef

The primary standalone can opener labored on a easy precept: level, stab, and pull. From the mid-19th century to the tip of World Conflict I, the everyday can opener regarded roughly like a wrench, if the decrease “jaw” of the wrench had been changed with a blade. Folks used the blade to puncture the highest of the can close to its edge, push the higher jaw in opposition to the aspect of the can, and drag the blade by the metallic alongside the rim. As a result of meat was the primary and hottest canned substance, these can openers had been usually formed to appear like cows and given the nickname “bully beef can openers.”

The bully beef can opener, in style within the mid-19th century, resulted in lots of misplaced fingers.

Musei del Cibo

Bully beef can openers had been so widespread, efficient, and durable that they’re nonetheless often out there on collector’s websites. Some are marketed as “nonetheless working,” and each final considered one of them is, indisputably, soaked within the blood of our ancestors. Dragging a pointy blade alongside the sting of a can is for certain to trigger damage in the end. So as soon as individuals bought a dependable can form and a dependable technique to get the can open, the search was on for a dependable technique to get a can open with out the opportunity of shedding a finger.

The reply got here in 1925, from the Star Can Opener Firm of San Francisco. That is in all probability the primary can opener that resembles the one individuals have of their kitchens immediately. As a substitute of utilizing a blade to pry open a metallic can, patrons may clamp the sting of the can between two wheels and twist the deal with of one of many wheels to maneuver the blade across the lip. The Star can openers weren’t good. In comparison with the bully beef mannequin, they had been flimsy and breakable, however they in all probability prevented a number of accidents.

The electrical years

Enlarge / There was a quick patent battle over the two-wheeled mannequin of can opener that is nonetheless in use immediately.

Six brief years after the Star mannequin got here to market, the primary electrical can opener was invented. It was patented in 1931 by the Bunker Clancey Firm of Kansas Metropolis, who had already been sued by the Star Can Opener Firm for making an attempt promote a double-wheeled can opener just like the Star mannequin (the case was dismissed).

The electrical can opener will need to have appeared just like the wave of the longer term and a sure-fire vendor, but it surely proved to be too far forward of its time. In 1931 not that many households had electrical energy, and people who did weren’t desirous about shopping for can openers. The Bunker Clancey Firm was subsequently purchased by the Rival Firm, which nonetheless makes small home equipment like can openers immediately.

It took one other 25 years for electrically powered can openers to change into sensible. Within the 1950s, Walter Hess Bodle and his daughter, Elizabeth Bodle, developed an electrical can opener within the household storage. Walter got here up with the opener’s blades and motor, and Elizabeth sculpted the surface. Their can opener was a free-standing unit that might sit on the kitchen counter.

The Udico model of the Union Die Casting Firm advertise in time for Christmas in 1956 and had nice success with it. Over the subsequent few years it got here out in numerous types and colours, and, just like the bully beef can opener, has change into a collector’s merchandise. Additionally just like the bully beef mannequin, Udico can openers usually nonetheless work. They do not make ’em like they used to.

Here is a collector exhibiting off his reconstructed Udico can opener from the 1950s.

Though there have been some design adjustments and refinements during the last sixty years, there have but to be any extra leaps ahead in can opener expertise. In case you’re resentfully opening a can of creamed corn, you might be nearly actually doing it utilizing the Star design, manually forcing the can between two wheels, or the Bodle design, clamping the can right into a free-standing electrical opener. Whether or not or not you get pleasure from your vacation meals, a minimum of you could be completely satisfied that you’re not getting poisoned by your individual meals or slicing open your hand with the blade you utilize to get at it. That is one thing, proper?

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