If not for Connecticut’s Ezra Warner, cooks might still be fumbling for a rock and a bayonet to get their dinners; while the original inventors of canning processes thought a lot about how to keep food safe and fresh in its can, they didn’t think much about how to actually get it out.
It was a Frenchman, Philippe de Girard, who invented the process of canning foods. And it was an Englishman, Peter Durand, who patented it in 1810. But it would be more than 40 years before someone figured out an easy way to get food out of the cans once it was inside.
Canning was a huge innovation, especially for supplying and feeding soldiers and sailors. But early cans were not what we’re used to today. Assembled with lead solder, the cans could be heavier than the food they held.
To open them, bayonets or other implements were used, which posed the problem of food splashing about and the opener risking injury. This went on for 40 years. Enter Ezra Warner of Waterbury, Conn. Warner was already a successful businessman in the 1850s. He was a stockholder in the Waterbury Hook and Eye Company and he held a patent on a ‘Mode of Fastening Hooks and Eyes upon Cards’ he had invented, which allowed the hooks and eyes to be easily packaged and shipped.
In 1858 he turned his innovative mind to the process of opening cans and developed a new can opener – the first patented in America – that had a lever and a cutter, “allowing the operator to cut as fast as he can move his hand,” he explained in the patent for the device.
“The advantages of my improvement over all other instruments for this purpose consist in the smoothness and rapidity of the cut, as well as the ease with which it is worked, as a child may use it without difficulty, or risk, and in making the curved cutter susceptible of being removed, so that if one should be injured it may be replaced by another, thus saving all the other portions of the instrument, and consequently much expense, and in that the piercer will perforate the tin without causing the liquid to fly out, as it does in all those which make the perforation by percussion of any kind.”
Easy enough for a child to use was perhaps an exaggeration, but storekeepers found it useful to pop open cans and sell the contents to customers. The biggest success for Warner came when his can opener was adopted for use by the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War.
William Lyman of Meriden, Conn. would advance the can opener technology further in 1870 with a patent for the first rotary opener, which was widely adopted for home use. It, in turn, would be replaced in 1925 with the hand crank can opener still in use today.