The Story of Can Openers

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Prof. Ashoka tells us about the invention of can openers, whose legacy might be traced back to 1850. He tells us about its evolution, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

By 1822, canned food was available in Britain, France, and the United States. The first cans weighed more than the food they contained and were opened using whatever tools were available at the time. The instructions on those cans read ‘Cut around the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer’.

Dedicated can openers appeared in the 1850s and had primitive claw-shaped or lever-type designs. In 1855, Robert Yeates of London invented the first claw-shaped opener. In 1858, Ezra Warner of Waterbury, Connecticut, US, patented a lever-type opener. It had a sharp sickle, which was pushed into the can and sawed around its edge. The U.S. Army adopted this opener during the American Civil War. But the knife-like sickle on it was too dangerous for domestic use and so clerks at grocery stores opened each can before customers took them home.

The first rotating-wheel can opener was patented in July 1870, by William Lyman of Meriden, Connecticut, and produced by the firm Baumgarten in the 1890s. The cutting wheel was rotated around the can’s rim to cut it. But the can needed to be pierced in the middle first. In 1925, the Star Can Opener Company of San Francisco, California, improved Lyman’s design by adding a second, serrated wheel called a feed wheel, allowing a firm grip of the rim and making initial piercing unnecessary.

Can-holding openers simultaneously grip the can and open it, making it unnecessary to hold the can as it is being cut. The first such opener was patented in 1931 by the Bunker Clancey Company of Kansas City, Missouri, and was, therefore, called the Bunker. It was similar to the Star design but added pliers-type handles for tightly gripping the rim. This efficient design is still used today.

An electric can opener similar to the Bunker was patented in 1931 but was did not find success until the 1950s.

In 1866, an opener with a completely different design was patented by J. Osterhoudt. Instead of piercing the can, it tore off and rolled up a pre-scored strip just below the lid. It was called a key because it resembled a door key. Today such openers are sold along with many small, thin-walled cans.

Can openers with simple and robust designs have been specifically developed for military usage. For example, the P-38 and P-51 were used by Americans during World War II. The P-38 was also known as a John Wayne because the actor was once shown using one in a training film.

Serialised from the book, Popular Triumphs of Human Innovation in Everyday Life, by Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad.

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the Internet

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.