Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


I RECENTLY CAME UPON an interesting item, coincidentally enough at the Interesting Facts website: “Canned Food Was Invented Before the Can Opener.” 

This, in turn, led me into follow up on a couple leads. (No wonder I seem to be so busy in retirement.)

Canning Origins. As described in Wikipedia, “Shortly before the Napoleonic Wars, the French government offered a hefty cash award of 12,000 francs to any inventor who could devise a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food to create well-preserved military rations for the Grande Armée.

“In 1809,” Wikipedia continues, “Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner and brewer, observed that food cooked inside a jar did not spoil unless the seals leaked, and developed a method of sealing food in glass jars. Appert was awarded the prize in 1810 by Count Montelivert, a French minister of the interior. The reason for lack of spoilage was unknown at the time, since it would be another 50 years before Louis Pasteur demonstrated the role of microbes in food spoilage and developed pasteurization.”

The Original Opener. What with fits and starts in canning, it wasn’t until 1858 that Ezra J. Warner of Connecticut invented the can opener. (Before this, soldiers opened theirs with bayonets, or a hammer and chisel, or smashed them open with rocks.)

Interesting Facts notes, “Warner’s tool (employed by soldiers during the Civil War) wasn’t a perfect replacement, however: It used a series of blades to puncture and then saw off the top of a can, leaving a dangerously jagged edge. As for the hand-crank can opener most commonly used today, that wasn’t invented until 1925.”

Today. The hand-crank opener is essentially unchanged, with the nuance of those designed for Lefties. Then came the electric can opener, the gadget many of us got a multiplicity of as wedding presents.

And, along the way, sardine canners devised the flip-top lid with its little loop. And beverage canners figured out pull-tabs, thus obviating the need for church keys. (My favorite of the latter pictured a jovial Pope John XXIII, such a relief after the stern Pius XII.) 

Round Cans Versus Other Shapes. Of course, sardine cans are decidedly different in shape than beer cans. This reminds me of a problem I used to propose to my Calc students: Given stated assumptions of material and fabrication costs, optimize the shape of a 12-oz. beverage can with a seamed side and lapped lid and bottom.

My estimated cost assumptions resulted in something akin to a rounded sardine can, shorter than a traditional beer can, but with a considerably larger diameter. 

At the time, I had a sister-in-law who worked in PR at a brewery. Hearing of this optimization, her boss was kind enough to call me with the real deal: The diameter of a beer can, pure and simple, is determined by the grip of an average male.

I devised another optimization example for my Calc kids. 

A Use for Empties. Whilst living on St. Thomas in the Caribbean, I drove a Volvo 122S wagon (in marked contrast to the ubiquitous VW Beetles, Austin Mini Mokes, and (a coming trend back then) the rare Toyota. I was never sure why I found this Swedish car in an ex-Danish island in the Caribbean, but it worked fine, thanks.

Here’s a 1968 sibling of mine. Image from Bring A Trailer

There was no handy Volvo dealer there, so maintaining the car took some imagination. The exhaust system, for instance, would call for random patching after rotting in a humid salt climate. 

Any hole could be effectively patched with a beer can, top and bottom cut off, split, smeared with epoxy, and held in place until cured with two radiator hose clamps. 

I believe the record for my wagon was six of them on a single exhaust until I resorted to an “imported” replacement.

A Last Interesting Fact. The Interesting Fact website notes that not only cans, but “anything made out of aluminum can be recycled indefinitely. Because of that, it’s estimated that two-thirds of all aluminum ever produced is still in use.”

Perhaps on Volvo 122S wagon exhaust systems. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023    


  1. -Nate
    May 25, 2023

    I still have a few ex military P-38 can openers, for something so cheaply made they work a long time, I typically loose one long before it wears out .

    I also have a variety of the 1930’s style of manual can openers, they have no moving parts and also leave a jagged edge but most of the crank types these days are worthless, only -one- American manufacturer still produces them .

    One of my manual openers is Russian military surplus, it’s like the American made one your grandmother used but less quality (means dull blade from new) and was covered in the very best Cosmoline (? SP ?) I’ve ever en countered, nearly impossible to remove .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: