In 1795, the French Ministry of the Interior backed by French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, offered a prize to anyone who could invent a new way to preserve food as traditional methods such salting, drying and smoking did not keep supplies edible long enough to reach the French army in far flung climes.
Nicolas Appert, a confectioner, won the prize of 12,000 francs in 1810 by discovering that heating food to high temperatures inside sealed glass jars would stop the contents from spoiling.
Just a few months after Appert’s publication of The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances, the British merchant, Peter Durand, was granted a patent by King George III to preserve food using tinplated cans which were lighter than glass, easier to seal and less prone to damage on long voyages. The iron was coated in tin to stop it rusting.
Durand’s patent is the first documented evidence of food being heated and sterilized within a sealed tin container. His method was to place food in the container, seal it, place in cold water, bring to the boil, open the lid slightly and then seal it again.
It’s believed that Durand’s method was in fact the idea of another Frenchmen, Philippe de Girard, who came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent his own idea. Durand eventually sold the patent to Bryan Donkin for £1,000.
Donkin already had a passion for metal work, having already patented the first steel pen, as an alternative to the quill. In 1811, Donkin invested profits from his current papermaking machine business into his new interest – canning – where he then massed produced corned beef for the first time.
Donkin’s canned food was carried by polar explorers like Edward Parry and the Duke of Wellington recommended the foodstuff to the British army and navy. In 1851, Donkin’s business partner, John Gamble, exhibited a wide array of canned foods at the Great Exhibition – marking the tin can’s switch from military necessity to home staple.
By 1880s the UK was importing 16 million pounds of canned meat as industries took off around the globe as transportation of goods became easier with the expansion of railways, roads and canals. In the US, Thomas Kensett and Ezra Daggett patented the use of tinplate in 1825 to sell canned oysters, fruits, meats and vegetables.
By turn of nineteenth century, scientists discovered that the preserving process used in canning killed micro-organisms which caused food to decay during the cooking stage. And a more efficient way of canning food was invented. The first cans were expensive and were made by hand.
Production became mechanized and a machine was developed which would stamp out can bodies and then solder the ends. Tinned food became the mainstay of the British Army right up until 1982.
In the 1920s, the US was the biggest producer of canned food, but South America and Australia also had flourishing industries. By WWI, US production was increased further still fuelled by a boom in agricultural outputs.
Through adverts which appeared after WWII, the convenience of canned food really shone and became a staple of the kitchen store cupboard. In 1962, Andy Warhol immortalised canned food in his 32 soup can print.
Today, production lines can produce around 1,500 cans a minute and weigh 30 per cent less than those produced two decades ago, using fewer raw materials but still retaining their strength and durability.