In the early 1800s, responding to Napoleon’s request to find a more efficient way to feed his armies in the field, French inventor Nicholas Appert discovered that heating food stored in glass jars would sterilize it, keeping it safe to eat for long periods of time. Shortly thereafter, Englishman Peter Durand invented a similar food storage method involving sealing food in iron cans lined with tin. The canning process revolutionized the way people throughout the Western world stored and ate their food, introducing an inexpensive way to preserve food for long periods without altering its taste. However, the earliest “tin cans” proved to be unwieldy and difficult to use. They were made of thick wrought iron that required sharp tools and a great amount of force to open.
By the 1850s, the cans used for storing food had become thinner and lighter, with most using a thin layer of tin-lined steel instead of iron. Still, most people still required a hammer and chisel to open them and access the food inside. But then, a clever Connecticut Yankee found a way to make canned food more accessible and practical by creating a device dedicated to opening these “tin cans.”
On January 5, 1858, Waterbury native Ezra J. Warner received a U.S. patent for the first-ever can opener. It was a simple one-handed tool that used a “bayonet and sickle” design to cut through the lid of tin cans: the “bayonet” would pierce the lid, while the “sickle” blade cut a jagged line around the circumference of the lid.
While Warner’s design wasn’t ideal — the jagged edge it left behind was dangerously sharp — it solved the decades-old problem of finding a simple and easy way to open canned food. Warner’s can opener would be replaced by more popular and improved designs later in the 19th century, but until then, it was commonly used by thousands of Americans, from Civil War soldiers to everyday grocers, to make their lives a little easier.
Thanks to Ezra Warner, an everyday necessity once again proved to be the mother of Connecticut invention, today in Connecticut history.
“The First U.S. Can Opener,” connecticuthistory.org
Scott Hiskey, “The Can Opener Wasn’t Invented Until 48 Years After the Invention of the Can,” todayIfoundout.com