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Capping The Bottle

Spring 1996 | Volume 11 |  Issue 4

WHEN BEVERAGE MANU facturers started putting their products in bottles, perhaps the biggest obstacle was finding an airtight seal. Cork, the ancient solution, was cheap, easy to handle, and flavorless; unfortunately, cork plugs tended to come loose, especially with beer and carbonated beverages. Some fifteen hundred bottle stoppers were patented by the 1890s, none very effective: They leaked, rusted, imparted unpleasant flavors and odors, and were so expensive that they had to be reused.

One such device had a marble in the neck, held in place by upward pressure from the carbonation. It provided a tootempting target for youngsters, who would break the bottles to get the marbles. Another popular closure consisted of a rubber plug attached to an elongated wire loop that stuck out of the bottle’s neck. To open a bottle, you pushed the stopper down; the loop kept it from falling all the way in. The design made washing and refilling bottles awkward, and it was rightly seen as unsanitary. Still, it was about the best thing available.

The man who brought disposable perfection to bottle closure was William Painter, the son of a Quaker farmer from Maryland. In 1855, at age sixteen, he had started work at an uncle’s leather company. Over the next thirty years, as an apprentice, an assistant in his father’s store, and (from 1867) the foreman of a Baltimore machine shop, Painter came up with numerous innovations in diverse fields. While still in his teens he patented a fare box and a car seat for railroads. Later inventions included a counterfeit-coin detector, a kerosene lamp burner, a seed sower, a soldering tool, and pumping and electrical equipment. One of Painter’s pumps removed water from sunken ships in Santiago Bay after the Spanish-American War. Another was widely used to evacuate cesspools and privies.

Around 1880 Painter decided to tackle the problem of sealing bottles. His first successful solution came in early 1885 with the Triumph, a reusable device with a rubber plug and an external wire frame. The Triumph was superseded almost immediately by the world’s first disposable stopper not made of cork, which Painter unimaginatively named the Bottle Seal. It was a rubber disk that fitted into a groove in the bottle’s neck. Internal pressure against the disk’s convex bottom kept the seal tight. A layer of waxed fabric protected the bottle’s contents, and a loop at the top allowed easy removal.

The Bottle Seal sold well, but Painter had something even better in mind. Many inventors over the years had come up with wire cages, metal bands, springs, clamps, and other gadgets to keep corks in place. None were satisfactory. Painter decided to try pressing a thin slice of cork against the top of the bottle instead of inserting a long piece down the neck. In 1892 he patented a seal with a layer of cork glued to a metal disk, which could be crimped around a lip at the top of the bottle. The crimped metal disk looked like a miniature crown, so Painter named his firm the Crown Cork and Seal Company.

One early problem was getting the cap off the bottle. Painter’s first design had two small holes in the metal layer, through which a small hand tool could be inserted. He also experimented with a loop, like that on his Bottle Seal. Both methods added a manufacturing step and required a thick piece of cork to prevent leakage. Painter eventually realized that if he made the metal disk a little larger, it could use a thinner cork disk and be pried off from below with an opener of the type still in use today.

The new seal was cheaper and more reliable than anything else on the market, and it could accommodate small variations in diameter between necks. It even had room for a trademark on top. Yet it took a while to catch on, because it required retooling by bottle makers and beverage bottlers. Around 1893 Painter developed a foot-powered machine that mixed carbonated water and syrup, filled a bottle, and capped it. Before, each step had required a separate machine. By the turn of the century an eight-head electric model could handle sixty to a hundred bottles a minute. Painter’s seal and machinery revolutionized the industry, and when his cap patent expired in 1909, the trend turned into a rout. By 1915 virtually all major bottlers had switched to the crown-type cap. Its primacy would not be challenged until the advent of the screw cap in the 1960s.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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