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A Short History of the Can Opener

Updated on April 11, 2009

For almost a century and a half the can opener has been a staple gadget in kitchens throughout the world. The reason, of course, for possessing a can opener is the need to open cans containing food.

The story of canned food and can openers begins in the early years of the nineteenth century during the Napoleonic Wars when the French Revolutionary army under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte was engaged in fighting and conquering France's neighbors in Europe. Feeding an army has always been a problem and Napoleon, with his large army, was looking for an easier and more economical way to do this.

With the encouragement of the French government, the French newspaper Le Monde offered an award of 12,000 Francs to the first person who could come up with an inexpensive and effective way to preserve large amounts of food.

A traditional, hand-operated, can opener.
A traditional, hand-operated, can opener.
New, Battery-Powered, Can Opener
New, Battery-Powered, Can Opener
Traditional and Modern Can Openers in Action
Traditional and Modern Can Openers in Action
Air tight glass containers still have their uses.
Air tight glass containers still have their uses.
Many modern cans can be opened without the aid of a can opener.
Many modern cans can be opened without the aid of a can opener.

The award was won in 1809 by a confectioner named Nicolas François Appert who developed a method of cooking food in glass jars and then closing the jar with an airtight seal. Appert's method worked and he won the prize even though he could not explain why the process worked - it wasn't until a half a century later that the famous French scientist, Louis Pasteur, made the discovery that microbes were responsible for food spoiling. The heat from cooking destroyed the microbes in the food and the sealing of the cooked food in an airtight container immediately after cooking prevented infestation by new microbes from the outside.

One drawback of Appert's invention was the use of glass containers as these did not travel well, especially in battle zones, and breakage was a problem. However, this was problem was solved a year later in 1810 when an Englishman named Peter Durand developed a method of replacing glass jars with cylindrical canisters made of tin or wrought-iron. As often happens, people began shortening the word canister to can when speaking and often preceded can with the modifier tin which described the metal used in many early cans. Today in the U.S. we refer to these containers as cans or tin cans while in Britain they are often referred to simply as tins. This despite the fact that for decades the cans used for storing food have been made from thin sheets of steel whose surface has been plated with a thin layer of tin to prevent rusting.

Initially, canned food was consumed mostly by soldiers who had to resort to using their bayonets or even rocks to break the cans open in order to get at the food. However, growth of urbanization in the mid nineteenth century gave rise to an increasing need for food that could be easily shipped and stored. Lacking bayonets, most early household users of canned food, opened the cans with hammers. However, advances in can technology resulted the use of thinner steel for making the cans (this not only reduced materials cost but also made it easier to mold the metal) which made it possible the development of hand operated gadgets that could cut through the thin metal. The first practical can opener was patented by Ezra Warner of Waterbury, Connecticut in 1858. Twelve years later, in 1870, William Lyman developed and obtained a patent for the basic, easy to use, hand-operated can opener, the principle and design of which is still in common use today.

Just as the easy availability today of the microchip has resulted in microchips being used to improve the functionality of most gadgets already in use as well as leading to the invention of a slew of new gadgets, so too, did the mass production of the electric motor in the first half of the twentieth century. It didn't take long for manufacturers to begin developing and selling electric powered versions of practically every gadget that contained moving parts. This included the lowly can opener, an electric version of which first appeared on store shelves in December of 1931 - just in time for Christmas.

In recent decades the tin can has been losing market share to newer and better technologies such as fresh frozen foods and foods packaged in microwavable plastic containers. Aluminum and specially treated cardboard, both of which are easier to work with and lighter (thereby reducing labor, material and shipping costs). However, the shrinking can market has not deterred inventors in their eternal quest to build a better mousetrap, err can opener, as evidenced by the battery powered OneTouch® which, instead of cutting around the metal inside the top rim, slices off the entire top portion of the can, rim and top together. Thus, as long as tin cans continue to exist we can continue to expect inventors to come up with new and improved gadgets to open them.

Battery Powered Can Opener - Inside and Out


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    • profile image

      daniela segura 7 years ago

      this helps me

    • Chuck profile image

      Chuck Nugent 8 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Fabio - congratulations on getting an 'A' on your project. Glad my Hub was of help.

    • profile image

      Fabio 8 years ago

      thanks needed the info for school got an a on the project!

    • ciidoctor profile image

      ciidoctor 8 years ago

      good work thank you

    • profile image

      Topgunmommy 10 years ago

      timely hub -- for our home anyway. Our electric can opener recently stopped working right, and search as we may, the old maual can opener was nowhere to be found!! I ended up bringing out my survival knife in order to open a can of spegetti sauce we wanted for supper!

      Still haven't replaced the thing, and yesterday I spent a half hour taking-apart, cleaning, and reassembling the electric opener while trying to open a couple of cans of tuna for my lunch!

      Old fashioned vs modern gadgets-- we can't live without them!


    • G-Ma Johnson profile image

      Merle Ann Johnson 10 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

      Aw yes the can how would anyone think of a hub on that? actually it is very informative and I personally use the kind that rounds the edges so as not get cut. Next do one on the corkscrews. Please... G-Ma :o) hugs

    • Angela Harris profile image

      Angela Harris 10 years ago from Around the USA

      Who would have thought that a simple can opener could be so interesting? I still own the traditional, mechanical can opener.

    • Peter M. Lopez profile image

      Peter M. Lopez 10 years ago from Sweetwater, TX

      Great hub. Very interesting. Good luck in the contest.