Many folks tend to overlook can openers, but these handy gadgets actually have a fascinating past. They've changed a lot in various shapes and sizes. What's odd, though, is that they didn't come about until many years after canned food was invented. The first ones were like keys and much smaller than what we use now. Using them required quite a bit of patience. If you're into thrift stores and antique shops, you might have come across these mysterious keys and wondered what they open.
The History of the Can Opener Key
The tale starts with the creation of cans. Back in 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte wanted a method to keep food fresh for his soldiers during transport. He offered a reward for a solution. Scientist Nicolas Appert won by using glass jars and lids. However, this prompted inventor Peter Durand to craft the first tin and iron can, earning a patent from King George III. 
In the early days, folks used tools like hammers or chisels to crack open the first cans. You see, those early cans were thick chunks of iron. Opening them with our modern can openers would likely end up in a broken tool. It wasn't until cans became thinner and made of steel that the concept of a can opener even became feasible.
Here's where the story takes an interesting turn: an American inventor named Ezra J. Warner stepped in. On January 5, 1858, he patented the very first official can opener. By this time, cans had gotten thinner, so the old hammer-and-chisel method wasn't the only option anymore. Warner came up with a clever opener that cut into the lid and sawed around the rim.
Jumping ahead to 1866, another innovator, J. Osterhoudt, patented the opener key. This nifty tool was shaped like a key and worked by sawing around the edge of the cans. Different canned goods, like fish, meat, beans, and coffee, came with their own specialized keys tailored to open specific items. This key-style opener is quite obscure and differs greatly from the ones we're familiar with today. It's mostly fallen out of use, but if you happen to stumble upon one, you can now appreciate its unique place in history.
In 1870, a significant leap was made in can opener design when William Lyman patented the first all-purpose version. This opener featured a rotary cutter, essentially a bent bayonet with wheels powered by a crank, rolling along the can's edge. However, Lyman's creation didn't quite match the modern openers we're familiar with. The closer version to today's openers emerged in the 1920s, thanks to Charles Arthur Bunker. He improved the rotary concept, but the initial piercing and wheel operation posed usability challenges.
Fast forward to 1925, the Star Can Opener Co. made a pivotal update by adding a second wheel to grip the can's edge. This modification laid the foundation for the can opener you encounter regularly nowadays. However, the 1980s brought an innovative twist with the "smooth edge" design, preventing rough edges and ensuring the opener doesn't come into contact with the food inside.
How to Open a Can Without a Can Opener
Now that you're familiar with the intriguing background of can openers, it's worth noting there are alternative methods to open cans. While they might not be as efficient, it's handy to have a backup plan in case of emergencies. Imagine you're out camping, relying on canned food, and suddenly realize you've forgotten the essential tool to open them. Or perhaps your regular can opener goes missing or breaks. In such situations, it's good to be aware of other tools you can use. Just remember to be cautious about sharp and jagged edges.
Step 1: Place the knife's flat side against your palm, gripping the handle, ensuring the sharp edge is pointed away from you.
Step 2: Utilize the corner edge of the blade nearest to the handle to pierce the top of the can. Insert the blade as deeply as possible to widen the hole.
Step 3: Turn the can slowly, piercing around the rim, until you can open the lid and access the contents inside.
Step 1: Grip the spoon securely with the scoop facing downward and toward you.
Step 2: Hold the can in your opposite hand and position the spoon's bowl close to the edge of the lid. Rub the spoon against the lid, applying downward pressure until a small hole forms.
Step 3: Now, it's important to keep using the spoon to gradually cut a larger section of the lid until you can fold it back and reach the food inside.