Cans and Can Openers: The Inventors

Before the can opener could be invented, someone needed to create a can for food storage. Napoleon Bonaparte was actually the man behind the idea of improving the way that food could be preserved and stored. He didn’t invent the can but he inspired it.

Prize Money Offered

Bonaparte saw that a major issue with his soldiersold can opener was getting fresh food to them, and he offered a financial award for anyone who developed a preservation method that permitted the military to travel with food for the troops.

It took 15 years before the prize was awarded to Frenchman Nicolas Appert (1749-1841), a candy maker and chef, who developed a system that worked. He couldn’t explain the science behind it but he learned that if food was sealed tightly a container (he used a glass jar) and then heated, it would sterilize the food so that it could be preserved for long periods of time. Traveling with glass jars presented a problem for the military but Appert received the prize for perfecting the storage system.

Shortly after this, a British merchant named Peter Durand received a patent from King George III for the world’s first can made of iron and tin. By using Appert’s sterilization method combined with Durand’s can, food could now be prepared and kept fresh for travel in containers that were not going to break.

How To Open the Can?

Only one issue hadn’t been solved: How to open the can. To retrieve the food, the early solution involved a hammer and sharp tool. These early cans were made of thick metal so a good deal or work went into opening each can.

wheel can openerBy the 1850s cans were being produced using a thinner steel. This proved helpful in letting inventors have a fresh run at creating a method for opening the cans. Forty-eight years after the invention of the can, the first patent for a can opener went to Ezra Warren of Connecticut. Warren created an opener with a pointed blade and a guard to keep the blade from penetrating too far into the can. It was called the “bayonet and sickle.” While this can opener was primitive, it was a vital accessory to soldiers during the Civil War.

Eight years later, J. Osterhoudt created a kind of “unwinding” can opener that was built into a can. Today we still see this style on some sardine cans.

Another Improvement

By 1870 William Lyman (1821-1891), also of Connecticut, came up with the design that is the basis for today’s can opener, known as the rotary can opener. One sharp rolling wheel cuts the rim of the can. The main challenge here was that the exact center of the can needed to be pierced by one end of the opener, which then acted as the pivot for the cutting wheel. However, the tool had to be adjusted for each size of can to be opened.

In 1925 a final improvement was made by the Star Can Company of San Francisco; the company added a second cutting wheel—one which fits below the rim of the can and can squeeze together with the top wheel to give a steady smooth cut as the “key” is turned.

The electric can opener was first sold in 1931, and the pop-opener can was introduced in 1959.

To read about another terrific invention, read about the bread-slicing machine: The Inventor of the Bread Slicer.


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