The gourmet chefs of the ancient world flavoured their foods with spices, and most of all salt. Okay, salt is great in small quantities, but if you wanted to preserve a side of bacon or perhaps a whole cow throughout the Summer months, you didn't have much choice. Then someone had the bright idea of putting food in cans and sealing them.
Canning appears to have been tried for the first time towards the end of the 18th Century; it was the brainchild of the chef Nicolas Appert (1749-1841). Developing the process took him many years, but in 1810 he was awarded a prize of 10,000 francs. It didn't take long for the idea to cross the Channel, and by 1813 the first factory mass producing canned foods was established in London by the engineer Bryan Donkin.
The rest, as they say, is history, but the technology has changed enormously in those two hundred years. Cans were originally sealed by hand; a good craftsman could seal maybe six an hour. The BBC has recently produced a short video
that demonstrates how this was done. According to the Heinz company
, a staggering 1.5 million cans of their baked beans are sold in the UK every day, so without automation...hmm. There have also been other innovations, like the ring pull can, a massive improvement that allows even a child to open a can quickly and safely.
There are now many other, competing ways of preserving food, but along with bottles, packets of soup, frozen vegetables, and a bit of the fresh stuff, canned food is here to stay.
Nicolar Appert and Bryan Donkin may not be in the same class genius-wise as Sir Isaac Newton
, but Appert's invention and Donkin's innovation followed decades later by modern, automated mass production techniques mean these two men have literally fed the world, as a certain Mr Geldof
might say. That is something for you to bear in mind next time you open a tin of baked beans, empty its contents into a saucepan, and then casually discard the empty shell into your trash can.