Over the Thanksgiving weekend, odds are that you watched a perfect red cylinder of cranberry sauce wobble itself out of a can into a bowl. Or maybe you shook a bunch of mushy peas from a can into a pot. It seems simple enough today, but generations of technological innovation went into making that canned food accessible to you. The grime-covered can opener you fish out of a drawer on holiday weekends is the result of decades of engineering—and a lot of cut-up fingers.
Birth of the can
One of the oddest things about the can opener is that the can predates it by almost 150 years. Though common today, cans were once military-grade technology. In 1795, Napoleon, to whom the phrase “an army marches on its stomach” is attributed, offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could find a way to preserve food. Without any knowledge of bacteria or their role in food spoilage, scientists didn’t even know where to begin. It took 15 years before a chef named Nicholas Appert claimed the prize after successfully jarring food. Soon after that, his countryman Philippe de Girard came up with a variant on Appert’s method—metal tins—and sold the idea to the British.
Spoiled food, and the sickness it caused, was a widespread problem. The public would have benefited from canned food, but for decades cans were almost exclusively for the army and the navy. The canning process, with its hours of boiling and steaming, its scrupulous cleanliness, its heated metal, and its need for a great deal of disposable material, made canned food far too expensive for anyone but the military. No can openers were needed or even possible. The metal of early cans was too thick to make openers practical. Soldiers and sailors had plenty of sharp objects on hand and made ample use of them when they wanted to eat.
During the 19th century, the process of canning was refined and mechanized, and the metal wall of the average can slimmed down enough that a civilian could get it open—if that civilian had the right tool. No one had that tool yet, so early cans had to open themselves. In other words, they came with built-in openers.
The result was a confusing but pleasing free-for-all, in terms of product engineering. Each type of food came with its own kind of can, and each kind of can came with its own kind of opener. Tinned fish and meat were often sold in rectangular cans. These cans were fitted with a “key” that would roll down the top of the can. Coffee, beans, and other types of meat were packaged in cylinders with metal strips that could be peeled back with their own kinds of built-in keys. Cans of milk, which didn’t need to be completely opened, came with puncture devices.
As tinned food became more common, its containers became more regular. A nice cylindrical can became the norm, and, as these cans filled kitchens, more engineers put their minds to finding a convenient way to open all of them.
The bully beef
The first standalone can opener worked on a simple principle: point, stab, and pull. From the mid-19th century to the end of World War I, the typical can opener looked roughly like a wrench, if the lower “jaw” of the wrench were replaced with a blade. People used the blade to puncture the top of the can near its edge, push the upper jaw against the side of the can, and drag the blade through the metal along the rim. Because meat was the first and most popular canned substance, these can openers were often shaped to look like cows and given the nickname “bully beef can openers.”
Bully beef can openers were so common, effective, and sturdy that they are still frequently available on collector’s sites. Some are advertised as “still working,” and every last one of them is, without a doubt, soaked in the blood of our ancestors. Dragging a sharp blade along the edge of a can is certain to cause injury sooner or later. So once people got a reliable can shape and a reliable way to get the can open, the search was on for a reliable way to get a can open without the possibility of losing a finger.
The answer came in 1925, from the Star Can Opener Company of San Francisco. This is probably the first can opener that resembles the one people have in their kitchens today. Instead of using a blade to pry open a metal can, buyers could clamp the edge of the can between two wheels and twist the handle of one of the wheels to move the blade around the lip. The Star can openers weren’t perfect. Compared to the bully beef model, they were flimsy and breakable, but they probably prevented a few injuries.
The electrical years
Six short years after the Star model came to market, the first electric can opener was invented. It was patented in 1931 by the Bunker Clancey Company of Kansas City, who had already been sued by the Star Can Opener Company for trying sell a double-wheeled can opener like the Star model (the case was dismissed).
The electric can opener must have seemed like the wave of the future and a sure-fire seller, but it proved to be too far ahead of its time. In 1931 not that many households had electricity, and those that did weren’t interested in buying can openers. The Bunker Clancey Company was subsequently bought by the Rival Company, which still makes small appliances like can openers today.
It took another 25 years for electrically powered can openers to become practical. In the 1950s, Walter Hess Bodle and his daughter, Elizabeth Bodle, developed an electric can opener in the family garage. Walter came up with the opener’s blades and motor, and Elizabeth sculpted the outside. Their can opener was a free-standing unit that could sit on the kitchen counter.
The Udico brand of the Union Die Casting Company put it on the market in time for Christmas in 1956 and had great success with it. Over the next few years it came out in different styles and colors, and, like the bully beef can opener, has become a collector’s item. Also like the bully beef model, Udico can openers often still work. They don’t make ’em like they used to.
Although there have been some design changes and refinements over the last sixty years, there have yet to be any more leaps forward in can opener technology. If you’re resentfully opening a can of creamed corn, you are almost certainly doing it using the Star design, manually forcing the can between two wheels, or the Bodle design, clamping the can into a free-standing electrical opener. Whether or not you enjoy your holiday meals, at least you can be happy that you are not getting poisoned by your own food or cutting open your hand with the blade you use to get at it. That’s something, right?