A tin opener is a mechanical device used to open tins usually containing preserved foods. But which came first – the Tin or the tin opener?
A British merchant named Peter Durand patented the tin can way back in 1810; it was a wrought iron can with a tin lining. However, the first can opener was not invented until almost fifty years later on January 5, 1858 by Ezra J. Warner in America.
General-purpose can openers first appeared in the 1850s and had a primitive claw-shaped or “lever-type” design, such as the ones shown in the photographs. In 1855, Robert Yeates, a cutlery and surgical instrument maker of Hackney Road, Middlesex, devised the first claw-ended can opener with a hand-operated tool that haggled its way around the top of metal cans
A home-use opener named the “Bull’s head opener” was designed in 1865 and was supplied with cans of pickled beef named “Bully beef”. The opener was made of cast iron and featured a more artistic shape and was the first move towards improving the look of the can opener. The bull-headed design was produced until the 1930s and was also offered with a fish-head shape.
The practice of preserving food using tin cans had been used since at least 1772 in the Netherlands. The early so called ‘Tin Openers’ were basically variations of a knife. The first cans were robust containers, which weighed more than the food they contained and required ingenuity to open, using whatever tools were available. The instruction on those cans read “Cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer”.
The first can opener with the now familiar, sharp rotating cutting wheel that runs round the can’s rim to cut open the lid, was invented in 1870, but was considered difficult to operate for the ordinary consumer. A successful design came out in 1925 when a second, serrated wheel was added to hold the cutting wheel on the rim of the can. This easy-to-use design has become one of the most popular can opener models.
During the 1800’s the canning process was mechanised and refined, with can walls becoming thinner. The twist-key can-opener was patented by J. Osterhoudt in 1866. There still was no general-purpose can-opener, thus each can came with a spot-welded or soldered-on twist-key can-opener which could be snapped off the top of the tin and used to lift the end of the pre-scored strip around the tin and roll it back until the top of the tin could be removed. The most common product using this way of opening is tins of meat (in particular Corned Beef). Tins of milk used puncture devices with which you then ‘ripped’ the tins open.
Electric can openers were introduced in the late 1950s and met with success. The development of new can opener types continues with a recent redesign of a side-cutting model.