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The Invention of Canned Food in the Early 1800s

By Wesley Fenlon

The BBC offers up an exhausting history of tin-based food preservation.

Decades before Pasteur discovered that heating food kills off bacteria and prevents illness, a French inventor named Nicolas Appert was placing food in glass jars and heating them. His method of sterilizing food was pasteurization before anyone anyone knew exactly why pasteurization was effective, and it earned him a 12,000F reward from the French Ministry of the Interior in 1810. It was an important invention, but mostly because of what came after. Appert's jarring process quickly made its way to the U.K., and in the hands of another French inventor, quickly became the foundation for canning food.

BBC Magazine's lengthy history of the tin can begins with the story of British inventor and businessman Bryan Donkin, who bought a patent for a tin food container designed to be sealed and heated to preserve food. The inventor behind the patent was a Frenchman named Philippe Girard. Donkin bought it for £1,000 and spent two years reworking it for mass production. He partnered another man to form Donkin and Gamble and begin canning beef.

Photo credit: Flickr user nickharris1 via Creative Commons.

Then came a big test: Presenting the canned food to some nobles. They liked it. And then things took off.

"In 1813, the Admiralty bought 156lb of Donkin's food, feeding it to sick sailors, because it was mistakenly thought that scurvy was due to over-reliance on salted meat," writes BBC. The praise from seamen for this unexpected addition to their daily menu was warm and glowing, from every corner of the globe.

William Warner, surgeon of the ship Ville de Paris, wrote in 1814 that canned food 'forms a most excellent restorative to convalescents, and would often, on long voyages, save the lives of many men who run into consumption [tuberculosis] at sea for want of nourishment after acute diseases; my opinion, therefore, is that its adoption generally at sea would be a most desirable and laudable act.' In Chile, there is a cove named Caleta Donkin, so called because the crew led by Capt Fitzroy were so delighted with their canned food."

Between 1814 and 1821, the Admiralty's orders for canned foods increased from around 3000 pounds to 9000. The BBC goes on to write about how underappreciated Donkin's role in history is--his name rarely shows up in the history books--and how canned food hit a major stumbling block decades after Donkin had left the business to pursue other engineering challenges.

In 1852, spoiled meat from another supplier known for his cheap prices caused mass condemnation of canned foods. Canned foods were suddenly distrusted, and could've been usurped by other forms of preservation. But then a savior arrived: Condensed milk. Read the BBC's feature for the full story of the can's rise, fall, and milky salvation.