What I Wrote Today and Why #5

After writing about space, place, and geography for a week, I thought food packaging needed some attention. Whether boxes, bags, or cans, food needs some sort of protection from the environment.

Cans tell a story that contains the layering of multiple technologies, not all of which came together at the same time. Nicholas Appert, a self-taught chemist who was a cook, chef, and confiseur in Paris experimented in his Paris shop while the citizens of his city marched on Versailles over the price of bread. Times were tough if you were hungry and not the aristocracy.

Access to food was not only a concern of Parisians during the Revolution. When Napoleon began his sweep across Europe, he was aware that feeding his army traveled on its stomach. (A turn of phrase attributed to either Napoleon or Frederick the Great, both interested in extending the reach of their armies.) Napoleon challenged the citizens of France to come up with a way to make food last longer while the navy was at sea and his armies were assembling his empire. Appert responded and came up with a way to sterilize food in glass bottles. He won the cash prize but not the patent. Almost at the moment he published his work, several British engineers and entrepreneurs scooped up the idea and received a patent. Not only for sterilized food but sterilized food in tin cans.

Bryan Donkin’s Tin Can, based on Appert’s Sterilization Technique for Glass Containers

The story begins to stall metallurgy evolves and can openers appear that can actually open those tin cans. But that took almost fifty years before the can became openable. Reading through this history revealed how tech revolutions can both sprint and plod.

One surprise today came when reading Appert’s book where he published his sterilization technique. He mentioned that his idea was a response to the general concern at the time of over-consumption of sugar. Yes, that’s in 1810. Since sugar (and salt) was used as a preservative, he saw his technique as a way to lessen the amount of sugar in preserved food. Our current concern about eating too much sugar apparently has a history of about two hundred years.

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