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How the humble (aluminium) 'can' changed the world!

The humble Aluminium can. What's so special about the ubiquitous can? We start our story with a simple question asked in the 18th century for a very complex problem at that time.


The year is 1795. Napoleon declares 12,000 Francs to anyone who can devise a way of preserving food for his army & navy. For millennia, it had baffled even champion strategists and generals on how to feed the troops during a war. How does one supply (fresh) food to thousands of men across several inaccessible locations of battle without requiring to replenish the stock again and again? Stripping small towns and villages of its resources was not always a reliable option. So what could be a viable solution then?

For 15 years, the money went unrewarded… until confectioner Nicolas François Appert claimed the prize in 1809. He experimented on the preservation of fruit in sugar jellies by sealing them in glass jars and heating them for varying lengths of time. But he could only claim the prize on the only condition that the French government put before him - he might publish his theory but not patent it. He became a darling of the media instantly, and was titled as the ‘Father of Canning’.

Appert canning jar
Appert canning jar
But there was a problem. Appert’s glass bottles were not durable at all. Sometimes, they simply exploded due to high internal pressure. Imagine stocking food in glass grenades in the inventory during the war! A few years later, Phillipe de Girard invented the ‘tin can’ whose upgraded versions we see today.

As the years rolled by,
  • 1813: John Hall and Bryan Donkin opened the first commercial canning factory in England
  • 1818: Peter Durand introduces his tinplated iron can in America.
  • 1819: Thomas Kensett and Ezra Gagett start selling their products in canned tinplate cans.
Oyster & Fruit Kensett & Company Ad
Oyster & Fruit Kensett & Company Ad

(Complete history infographic below the post)
This was just the beginning of a revolutionary movement in the human history which altered the way food and beverages would be consumed in the future. In 1935, the first beer can was introduced. Named “Krueger Cream Ale”, it was sold by the Kruger Brewing Company of Richmond, Virginia. This was followed by canning carbonated soft drinks in 1940.

The first canned beer was "Krueger Cream Ale," sold by the Kruger Brewing Company of Richmond, Virginia
The first canned beer was "Krueger Cream Ale," sold by the Kruger Brewing Company of Richmond, Virginia

In 1941, more than 140 years after Napoleon’s quest began for quelling his troops’ hunger, the US soldiers rely on canned field rations during WWII. Two years later, Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan invented a portable aerosol can using pressurized gas that could be used by US servicemen to kill disease-spreading insects during WWII.

Until now, tin, iron & steel were the primary materials used in canning. The problem with this arose when the taste and the composition of the internal contents changed over time as it reacted with the metal. So, it became a necessity to find an alternative which could hold all the quality of the contents intact and be extremely durable at the same time. The solution lay in using Aluminium.

It was in the 1950s, the Coors Brewing Co. found out that the taste of their beer drastically changed in the tin-lined steel container. Also, it was too expensive to buy newer cans over and over again. Coors President Bill Coors became interested in aluminium as a better container — beer chills quicker in aluminium, it’s light and less expensive to transport, and it doesn’t alter the taste. Also, aluminium is 100% recyclable. Aluminium cans are recycled over and over again in a true ‘closed loop’ recycling process. Glass and plastic are typically 'down-cycled' into products like carpet fibre or landfill liner.

Coors - aluminium beer cans collected for recycling
Coors - aluminium beer cans collected for recycling
Aluminium was introduced in the metal can-making in 1957 and two years later, the first all-aluminium beer can was introduced by Ermal Fraze (Kettering, Ohio) who invented the easy-open can! Bill put Coors beer in a 7-ounce, two-piece recyclable aluminium can.

Bill Coors with new aluminium cans for beer in 1959
Bill Coors with new aluminium cans for beer in 1959
There has been no looking back since.

By 1985, Aluminium cans had taken over the beverage packaging market. Astronauts in outer space receive carbonated beverages in cans. Companies like Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch use it extensively to sell their products, lending them longevity, intact quality and massive cost-effectiveness.

As we start looking for viable and inexpensive solutions to share fresh food items across the world, aluminium will always be the most preferred material due to its inherent characteristics. The humble (aluminium) can’s story is nothing short of incredible as it made our life vastly convenient today.


Infographic
history of the Aluminium can

References:

  • http://www.aluminum.org/product-markets/aluminum-cans
  • http://www.millercoorsblog.com/history/coors-aluminum-can/
  • https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2012/03/01/147751097/why-napoleon-offered-a-prize-for-inventing-canned-food

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