We've all been there: You realize that you forgot to bring a can opener on a camping trip and are forced to strike your can of beans against the nearest rock. But for the 50 years when canned foods existed but can openers did not, that was just everyday life.
In this series, we reveal the secrets, histories and quirky bits of trivia behind your favorite foods.
We've all been there: You realize with a sinking feeling that you forgot to bring a can opener on a camping trip and are forced to strike your can of beans against a boulder or nearly lose a finger using a Swiss Army knife to puncture the lid. For those who were alive when canned foods were first invented, that was just everyday life. In a classic case of the horse coming before the cart, tin cans predated can openers by nearly 50 years.
Experimentation with canned food began in late-1700s France when the government offered a 12,000 franc prize to anyone who could find a stable source of food for the military. After trying out a few different methods, a young chef named Nicholas Appert (now known as the "Father of Canning") found that dunking corked Champagne bottles or sealed glass jars in boiling water kept the contents fresh longer. (He didn't understand the science behind his discovery, but he won the 12,000 francs anyway.) Englishman Peter Durand built upon Appert's findings and took out the first patent for the more travel-safe tin can in 1810. Durand covered iron with rust-proof tin, creating a thick and heavy barrier that kept food fresh but was nearly impossible to break through. The only way to get to the food inside was to hack at the can with a knife; soldiers would stab theirs with bayonets.
Eventually, technology made cans thinner, and thankfully—finally—Ezra J. Warner invented the first can opener in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1858, putting an end to decades of collective frustration. So be grateful for can openers, and don't forget to pack one for your next summer adventure. Unless, of course, you prefer the bayonet method.