Origins of ordinary things: Tin cans

Tin cans were invented in 1804. Net photo.

Since prehistoric times, humans have always found ways to make food last longer through a variety of methods ranging from fermentation and pickling to salting, smoking and drying, but a method for preserving food in a nearly-fresh state had remained elusive. 

According to History, in 1795, French emperor Napoleon’s military was powerful but hungrier than ever. Nicolas Appert, a young chef from the region of Champagne, dove into the study of food preservation. His innovation, when it arrived, came packed in the strongest airtight containers he had access to; champagne bottles, sealed with an oddly effective mixture of cheese and lime. Appert’s discovery built on earlier imperfect techniques, which either removed air or preserved food by heat but hadn’t managed to do both.


Running a bustling lab and factory, Appert soon progressed from champagne bottles to wide-necked glass containers. In 1803 his preserved foods (which came to include vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy and fish) were sent out for sea trials with the French navy. By 1804, his factory had begun to experiment with meat packed in tin cans, which he soldered shut and then observed for months for signs of swelling. Those that didn’t swell were deemed safe for sale and long-term storage.


A tin can, or steel can, defined by Wikipedia, an encyclopaedia, is a container for the distribution or storage of goods, composed of thin metal. Steel cans are made of tinplate (tin-coated steel) or of tin-free steel. Steel cans are stronger than cartons or plastic, and less fragile than glass, protecting the product in transit and preventing leakage or spillage, while also reducing the need for secondary packaging.


Food and drink packed in steel cans has equivalent vitamin content to freshly prepared, without needing preserving agents. Steel cans also extend the product’s shelf-life, allowing longer sell-by and use-by dates and reducing waste.

According to Metro Waste, Appert’s idea was soon passed to British merchant Peter Durand.  Durand did not pursue food canning, but, in 1812, sold his patent to two Englishmen, Bryan Donkin and John Hall, who refined the process and product, and set up the world’s first commercial canning factory on Southwark Park Road, London. By 1813 they were producing their first tin canned goods for the Royal Navy and by 1820, tin canisters or cans were being used for gunpowder, seeds, and turpentine.

Wikipedia further reveals that early tin cans were sealed by soldering with a tin-lead alloy, which could lead to poisoning. 

In 1901 in the United States, the American Can Company was founded, at the time producing 90% of United States tin cans.

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