‘Can’ you believe it? The history of the tin can

History and Invention of the Tin Can

As we’re immersed every day in the world of junk and recycling, we thought we’d take some time out today to look at the history of one of the common objects we see everyday, yet don’t give a second thought to – The tin can.

We see them everywhere on our London travels in all shapes and sizes. From oil drums and paint tins to baked bean and sardine cans; they all turn up in our skips or on our tipper trucks. But… who invented them, and are they really made of tin?

The long journey from France to Southwark, South London

Philippe de Girard

Philippe de Girard

It’s often said that a Frenchman named Philippe de Girard was the true father of the tin can. He was a prolific inventor and engineer and is better known for inventing the first flax spinning frame in 1810. There’s scant information about his attempts to develop a method of long-term food preservation but, as the story goes, he got the idea from his fellow countryman Nicolas Appert, who had already been experimenting with food preservation techniques a year earlier.

Appert’s experiments

Appert was no stranger to the kitchen. He worked as a confectioner and chef in Paris for 11 years up until 1795. Obviously, back then, there was no such thing as a fridge, and no tried and tested method of preserving perishable foods for long periods of time existed, aside from salting and pickling.

As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention and spurred on by this, he decided to experiment with ways to preserve food such as dairy products, vegetables, soups, juices and jams etc. He figured that making an airtight container would be a good place to start, so he decided to try sealing the food in glass jars to see what would happen. He placed the food in a glass jar, then corked it tightly. He then covered the jar with wax to make it airtight. This in itself, didn’t preserve the food as it was necessary to rid the food of bacteria by sterilizing it once in the jar – Bear in mind that this was years before Louis Pasteur proved that heat killed bacteria!

Nicolas Appert

Nicolas Appert

He placed the newly sealed jars in boiling water to cook the (airtight) food for as long as he deemed necessary and the initial results were promising. It’s not clear how he stopped the glass jar from exploding and splattering the contents all over his walls, as a later patent described that the containers should not be airtight during the cooking and cooling off period, presumably due to the pressure build-up during cooking.

Prize money

In 1800, Napoleon decided to offer a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone that could come up with a way to preserve every day, perishable food. It’s not clear why Appert didn’t do it sooner (presumably because he was still experimenting), but in 1806 he presented a selection of bottled fruits and vegetables from his manufacture at the Exposition Des Produits De L’industrie Française (Exhibition of Products of French Industry) which was a kind of industrial French trade fair. For reasons that aren’t clear, he didn’t get the prize money that Napolean had offered a few years before.

However, in 1810 the Bureau of Arts and Manufactures of the Ministry of the Interior stated that it would pay Appert the 12,000 francs on the condition that he shared his preservation method with the wider world.

Appert duly agreed and published a book describing his process the same year. He had 200 copies of his little book “L’Art de conserver les substances animales et végétales” (The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances) published, and modern-day food preservation was born, albeit, in glass jars. He did actually consider using tinplate containers instead, but the quality of French tinplate was so poor, he decided against it.

One of appert's glass jars

One of Appert’s jars – Photo by J P Barbier

On a roller coaster ride to success, Appert patented his invention and established a business to preserve various foods in sealed bottles. La Maison Appert (The House of Appert), in Massy, near Paris, became the first food bottling factory in the world.

The production process was fairly straightforward. Thick, large-mouthed glass bottles were filled (not all the way to the top) with all kinds of produce including beef, fowl, eggs, milk, and other pre-prepared dishes. A space at the top of the jar was left before being corked and wax sealed. The jar was then wrapped in canvas to protect it, and placed in a vat of water which was boiled to cook the contents for as long as was necessary.

As a publicity stunt, he once used his technique to preserve an entire sheep!

As Appert’s method was so simple and was already public, it quickly became widespread. In 1810, Peter Durand, a British inventor and merchant, cheekily patented his own method using a tin can. Originally of French origin, Durand essentially created the modern-day process of food canning that we’re familiar with today.

As part of Appert’s legacy and ingenuity, canning is sometimes referred to as appertisation. Similar to pasteurization, which typically cooks food at around 70 °C, his method heated the food to far higher temperatures. Whilst effective, the main drawback was that due to the high heat, some of the flavour of the food was often destroyed. This was, however, a small price to pay for the benefit of stopping fresh food from going rancid.

More about Durand

Hot on the heels of Appert’s new method, Peter Durand was granted a patent (No: 3372) by the British King, George III on August 25, 1810. The patent described a method of preserving animal food, vegetable food and other perishable articles using various vessels made of glass, pottery, tin or other suitable metals.

Strikingly similar to Appert’s method, the procedure involved filling up a vessel with food and then capping it. Vegetables were to be put in raw, whereas animal products were either raw or part-cooked. The sealed food container would then be steamed or boiled (sound familiar?), or even placed in an oven or on a stove to cook. As Appert had previously discovered, boiling did seem to be both an effective and efficient method.

Presumably, to stop the vessel exploding, the patent specified that during the cooking and cooling of time, the jar (or other container) would have its cork, lid or cap slightly loose, but as soon as possible afterwards, it would be sealed tighly. The patent also vaguely described the duration of cooking as a “long time”, as the duration would obviously depend heavily on the size of the container and the type of food in it.

Durand seemed to have a fairly keen eye for business and imagined a day when the method he patented could be used in widescale food preservation. Whilst his patent doesn’t say who he got the idea from, it does say that he got it from a “certain foreigner residing abroad”. He was somewhat sceptical of the method but still decided to try it out for himself before applying for a patent.

Whereas the original inventor only used small amounts of food in small containers, Durand experimented with larger quantities and was able to preserve over 13 kilos of meat in a single can (it seemed that he preferred to use cans rather than glass jars although it’s not clear why). To give his method more traction and garner more authority for it, he asked the Royal Navy to take his cans on long trips that would last months at a time. Upon returning to shore, the contents were inspected by a few members of the Royal Society and, much to Durand’s delight, the food was confirmed to be perfectly preserved.

Durand was now on a roll, but despite being granted a patent for the preservation technique, he didn’t set up any kind of production method himself. Instead, he cannily (excuse the pun!) sold his patent 2 years later in 1812 to a couple of English businessmen Bryan Donkin and John Hall, for £1,000. Smelling the chance of more profit, he also re-sold his patent in America some six years later in 1818.

Meanwhile, after buying the patent from Durand, Donkin and Hall teamed up with John Gamble and together, the three of them set up a commercial canning factory in Southwark, South London and in only a year, they were already supplying the British Army with canned food. Donkin already had experience in the tin and iron industry, so it’s no surprise it didn’t take them long.

It’s worth noting that Durand’s patent was more about the actual preservation method, rather than the type of container that was used and it was found that, in the long run, cans were much more suitable for the job than glass jars. At that time, glass wasn’t as easy to mass produce as it is today and it was also quite heavy. Furthermore, as well as being expensive, it would also shatter easily.

Where does Philippe de Girard fit into all of this?

Yep, hang on, what about Philippe de Girard who was cited as the possible ‘father of the tin can’ at the very beginning of this article? He’s only had the very briefest of mentions so far.

Well, it does seem that the “certain foreigner residing abroad” mentioned in Durand’s patent was, in fact, Philippe de Girard, and not Nicolas Appert (the guy that boiled the whole sheep). Whilst it seems that Appert conducted some ground-breaking experiments preserving food in jars, it appears that the concept of canning was passed from Philippe de Girard to Durand, although admittedly, little is known about the relationship between Girard and Durand.

According to Norman Cowell, a retired lecturer at the department of food science and technology at Reading University, Philippe de Girard did actually come to London himself and merely used Durand as a kind of agent to front his ideas. At that time, the French and English weren’t exactly the best of friends, so using an Englishman such as Durand was a pretty smart move.

Cowell says that there is good evidence to support this by citing a letter written at the time by Charles Blagden, a fellow of the Royal Society. In the letter, note what Blagden writes at the end of the quote below:

M Girard came and brought his preserved foods. We tasted the milk and the broth and the roasted meat. All good but the milk was yellow and had a bad taste. The broth had been kept since August last, he said. The milk and beef six weeks. He had a phial of a large size, milk, broth and gravy in tin kettle with covers soldered on… His patent is taken out in the name of Durand.

However, since Durand actually patented the idea in the first place, he is often credited for being the inventor of the modern day tin can, although it does seem clear he was somewhat of a frontman in the whole story and it’s not clear how much of the experimentation was actually done by him. Indeed, if you search on Google for the term “who invented the tin can?”, you’ll most likely see a picture of Durand with his name at the top of page one.

Donkin, Hall and Gamble – The Southwark connection

An early can made at the factory

An early can made at Donkin’s factory – Image: Science Museum – Licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

After shelling out £1000 to buy the patent from Durand, Bryan Donkin, John Hall and John Gamble experimented with their can design and were able to refine the process and streamline production of the modern canning process. They set up the world’s first commercial canning factory in Southwark Park Road, London, trading as Donkin, Hall and Gamble. It’s worth mentioning that the company later underwent a merger and became the more familiar household name of today – Crosse & Blackwells.

Anyway, things went well, and by 1813 they were already lucratively producing tin canned goods for the Royal Navy.

Were the cans actually made of tin?

Well, yes and no; they were actually made of tinplate. Steel and iron were often plated with tin for its anti-corrosive properties, and it was common for kitchen utensils to be made of tinplate. As it was relatively cheap to mass produce, it was already frequently used for pots and pans and other similar items.

The lids of the early tin cans were typically sealed by soldering the top and bottom of the can with a tin-lead alloy. Lead is extremely poisonous if ingested and there was a lead-related scandal in 1845 concerning the Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, whose crew members suffered from severe lead poisoning. It was initially thought to be caused by eating food from tin cans but recent research suggests the lead poisoning was more than likely caused by the water pipe system on the ships the explorers travelled in.

So, who really did invent the tin can?

Despite Durant’s original patent leading to the mass production of tin cans in the Southwark factory, Nicolas Appert is the one who comes closest to claiming the title. Even though he only used glass jars, his groundbreaking work in food preservation was the catalyst for the whole non-salted, non-pickled food story.

A final irony

One of the most surprising things about this whole story was how the early tin cans were opened. A can opener hasn’t been mentioned once so far, so how did they get the contents out of those thick metal containers?

Well, with anything sharp or heavy that they could get their hands on, whether it be a knife or a rock. Despite the first patent for the canning process being granted to Durand in 1810, the can opener wasn’t patented until 45 years afterwards, in 1855!

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