Skip to main content

OBJECT LESSONS

The Can Opener

Summer 2000 | Volume 16 |  Issue 1

DURING THE 1820S THE BRITISH EXPLORER WIL liam Parry led several Arctic expeditions across Baffin Bay and through miles of frozen waste toward the north magnetic pole. The explorers used a new technology to help them survive in the frigid north: canned food. Tin-coated, wrought-iron cans would allow them to carry palatable provisions almost indefinitely without spoilage. The trouble began when they actually wanted to eat the food. A can of roast veal came with these forbidding instructions: “Cut round on the top with a chisel and hammer.”

A British engineer and paper manufacturer named Bryan Donkin, building on the work of the French inventor Nicolas Appert, had developed a process for preserving food in metal cans in 1812. “It is the rare artifact that does not require also an infrastructure of auxiliary artifacts to be developed,” the author and engineer Henry Petroski observes in his book The Evolution of Useful Things . Donkin apparently figured that was someone else’s problem.

Ever since bayonets and gunfire, progress has been slow

Early cans were mighty fortresses of heavy-gauge wrought iron that often weighed more than the food they contained. Soldiers in the early nineteenth century attacked them with bayonets. As late as the American Civil War, hungry troops resorted to rifle fire to open them.

The first can openers weren’t a big improvement. Piercing the lid required a forceful blow with a sharp instrument. Then one had to saw laboriously around the rim to get at the contents of the can. It was messy and even dangerous. Consumers usually made do with their own tools or let shopkeepers open the cans for them.

The outlook brightened in the late 1850s, when manufacturers became able to produce thinner cans from steel. In 1858 Ezra Warner, of Waterbury, Connecticut, patented a breakthrough: an opener with a pointed blade that the user pressed, rather than stabbed, into the can. A metal guard kept the point from penetrating too far, to “perforate the tin without causing the liquid to fly out.” A second, curved blade could then be worked to gnaw along the rim and remove the lid. Warner’s patent claimed, with more optimism than prudence, that “a child may use it without difficulty, or risk.”

The first widely used domestic can opener, the late-nineteenth-century Bull’s Head, was named for the sculptural shape of the cast-iron handle end that held its blade. It typically had a short, pointed blade to pierce the lid and a longer blade to slice along the rim, much in the manner of Warner’s 1858 opener. The Bull’s Head was so popular that today it can often be found in antique shops and on eBay.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support this 70-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate

Stay informed - subscribe to our newsletter.
The subscriber's email address.