A brief history of canned food

The principle behind canning – putting food in a watertight container and boiling it – was invented by a Frenchman (Nicolas Appert) around 1795.

Napoleon was at war (with Britain this time) and had offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with a better method for preserving food for his army. Appert, who had been experimenting with fruit-preservation, came up with the idea and was duly awarded the prize.

In true French style, he used Champagne bottles as his first containers.

A condition of accepting the prize was that he forgo patenting his invention and he obtained no further benefit from it and died a pauper (1841).

Considering the motivation for the prize, it is ironic that it was an Englishman (Peter Durand) who filed the first canning patent (in 1810) – he kept the method but replaced the Champagne bottles with tin cans (in true British style).

Oddly, it took about another 50 years for a can-opener to be invented. Canned foods were mainly consumed by armies and cans were much larger than they are today – they came with instructions to open with a hammer and chisel (or bayonet). The first openers worked on a similar principle – they stabbed and hacked the lid off.

The more genteel two-wheel can-opener didn’t make an appearance until the 1920’s. The most safe and effective opener, the side-opening can opener, was patented as recently as 1997.

Thus, the apogee of the can-opener has arrived just in time for them to be made redundant by ring-pulls.


Further reading:

Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork, Perseus, NY.

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