Who Invented the Can Opener?

When I started this website, my motivation was learning about the inventors behind the great human inventions. I didn’t realize that, basically, everything had to be invented. Some things as innocuous as the can opener didn’t exist for the longest time! In fact, it was created way more recently than I would have expected.

Who Created the Can Opener?

The history of the can opener is connected to the one of canned food, but that’s a subject for another article. For now, we are looking at the history of the opening of those cans, but for context, let’s resume.

By the late 18th century, a small industry of canned salmon had emerged in the Netherlands. These early cans were made of tin-plated iron and were opened by cutting around the top with a chisel and hammer. The breakthrough in canning technology came in 1810 when Peter Durand patented the preservation of food in tin cans. Bryan Donkin acquired the patent in 1812 and established the world’s first canning factory in London in 1813.

Throughout the 19th century, the canning process was mechanized and refined, leading to thinner can walls. In 1866, J. Osterhoudt patented the twist-key can opener. These early can openers were spot-welded or soldered onto the cans and would snap off after use, leaving a jagged rim of metal.

By the early 1800s, canning had become a recognized industry in Britain, France, and the United States. However, there was still no general-purpose can opener, and each type of canned food required its own specific can opener.

Opening Cans, from the Civil War to Your Home

In 1858, American inventor Ezra J. Warner developed a blade that pierced the lid of the can and sawed around the edge. With this can opener, users could easily cut through the lid of the can, providing access to the preserved food inside.

However, there was one notable drawback to his invention. Once the lid was removed, it left behind a jagged and sharp rim of metal, which could pose a risk to the user’s fingers. As a result, while the can opener served its purpose during the Civil War and was used in supermarkets to open cans for customers, it was not practical for domestic use due to this safety concern.

Ad from March, 1932’s Popular Mechanics. (source)

In 1870, William Lyman addressed this issue with his innovative can opener design. His invention featured a circular rotation mechanism that allowed for a smooth and clean cut along the edge of the can lid.

The user would start by using the pointed tip of the can opener to pierce the center of the can lid. After this initial puncture, it was necessary to adjust the rotating blade with the help of a butterfly screw to determine the size of the circular cut that would be made. Once the blade was adjusted, turning the can opener in a circular direction made the first cut of the lid as the blade, guided by the adjustments made earlier, follow the circular path, smoothly cutting along the edge of the can. Et voilà!

It wasn’t until 1931 when Charles Arthur Bunker patented the tooth-wheeled crank design, which remains the standard for can openers to this day. The tooth-wheeled crank can opener featured a rotating wheel with sharp teeth, which engaged with the can’s lid when the crank was turned. As the crank was rotated, the toothed wheel cut smoothly along the lid’s edge, creating a clean and safe opening. This mechanism eliminated the need for manual cutting, ensuring that users no longer faced the risk of sharp edges after opening the can.

The Bonzer Benchtop Can Openers

Charles Arthur Bunker’s design was suitable for domestic use, but hotels and restaurants needed more efficient openers. In the 1940s, the Bonzer Benchtop Can Openers were introduced, designed by Mitchell & Cooper for commercial and industrial use, and they became a staple in professional kitchens.

The operation of the Bonzer can openers is straightforward and efficient. The opener is mounted on a workbench or countertop, and cans are placed underneath the cutting wheel. With a simple turn of the crank, the cutting wheel engages with the can’s lid, smoothly and effortlessly opening the can. This manual operation allows for precise control and minimizes the risk of spillage or damage to the canned contents.

The Bonzer Benchtop Can Openers are versatile and can accommodate various sizes of cans, offering flexibility in a commercial kitchen setting where cans of different dimensions may be used.

Beyond The Can Openers

Over the years, various designs and mechanisms for can openers emerged, including pressure cuts, vertical rotating cuts, and horizontal rotating cut openers.

The can opener’s evolution continued with electric versions–the first one was invented by Thomas William Turner in 1931–and further improvements were made in the following decades.

In 1963, Ermal Fraze invented the pull-tab can, which had a pre-scored strip on the lid that could be pulled to open the can without the need for a separate opener. Pull-tab cans eliminated the need for traditional can openers in many instances.

If you’re interested in inventions that changed the way we cook and eat food, I wrote about the accidental creation of the Microwave Oven, and the creation of the toaster.

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