Science & Technology

The Intriguing Story of Canned Food

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

Prof. Ashoka tells us about the invention of canned food, tracing its antiquity to 1795. A Different Truths exclusive.

The story of canned food begins, in 1795, when the French government offered 12,000 francs, a large prize, to anyone who could invent a method of preserving food. Napoleon had famously noted that an army ‘travels on its stomach,’ because his troops were destroyed much more by hunger and scurvy than by combat.

Parisian Nicholas Appert, after experimenting for 15 years, successfully preserved food by partially cooking it, sealing it in airtight bottles with cork stoppers and immersing these in boiling water.

Parisian Nicholas Appert, after experimenting for 15 years, successfully preserved food by partially cooking it, sealing it in airtight bottles with cork stoppers and immersing these in boiling water. Samples of Appert’s food were taken by Napoleon’s troops, who travelled by sea for over four months, and it remained fresh. He was rewarded, in 1810, by the Emperor, for his invention. He also wrote a book titled The Book of All Households or The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years.

British merchant Peter Durand patented the airtight tin can method of preserving food and other perishables in 1810. The rest of his preservation process was similar to Appert’s. The cans were made of iron, coated with tin to prevent rust and were much easier to handle than Appert’s glass bottles. In 1812, Durand sold his patent to two Englishmen, Bryan Donkin and John Hall, for £1,000. They set up a commercial canning factory in Bermondsey, England, and by 1813, were producing canned goods for the British army and navy. Nutritious canned vegetables soon eliminated scurvy.

Sir William Edward Parry made two arctic expeditions to the Northwest Passage in the 1820s and took canned food on both his journeys.

Sir William Edward Parry made two arctic expeditions to the Northwest Passage in the 1820s and took canned food on both his journeys. One four-pound tin of roasted veal, carried on both trips but never opened, was preserved in a museum until it was opened, in 1938. The contents, then over one hundred years old, were found to be perfectly edible! But early cans were sealed with lead solder, which sometimes caused lead poisoning. Famously, members of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition suffered severe lead poisoning after three years of eating canned dog meat.

The modern can opener was invented, in 1865, making canned products even more convenient.

The modern can opener was invented, in 1865, making canned products even more convenient. The sanitary or open top can was introduced by the Sanitary Can Company of New York, in 1904. It soon began to dominate the market because it was easy to manufacture and required no soldering, thus eliminating the possibility of lead poisoning. Today, there are more than 600 sizes and styles of cans being manufactured and canned food is more popular than ever.

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the Internet


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