Although Frenchman Nicolas Appert earlier pioneered the preserving of food in glass jars, it was an Englishman, Peter Durand, who patented the food canning process. He sold the patent to Bryan Donkin who began sealing food in airtight, tin-plated iron cans in 1813. The instructions for opening tins of roasted veal read: “Cut round on the top near to the outer edge with a chisel and hammer”. Canned foods were first shipped to Australia in 1815.
Before the food canning process was invented, much food was preserved by salting. Meat or fish immersed in brine was a staple on ships and for Australia’s early colonists before farming was established in New South Wales.
It’s said that Appert’s discoveries were in response to a request from Napoleon for a way to preserve food for his armies. The method involved heating food in sealed glass jars placed in boiling water – a method still employed by our Aussie Fowlers Vacola system.
However, glass was not the most robust of containers. It seems another Frenchman, Philippe de Girard, first came up with the idea of using tin-plated cans but, frustrated by red tape in his native land, used Durand as an agent to patent his idea in England. The patent was sold to an engineer called Bryan Donkin for £1,000 and Donkin went on to produce the first canned beef in 1813.
The early cans were clumsy things – large and extremely heavy. The food was heated in the sealed can, which was then opened slightly and re-sealed with solder. Canned food was adopted enthusiastically by the British admiralty as a preferred alternative to salted foods on sea voyages.
Although the food canning process worked, the mechanism was not well understood. Until Louis Pasteur pioneered the process of sterilisation in the 1860s, no one realised that it was important that the contents of the cans reached a certain temperature to kill bacteria. It was thought that simply sealing the food away from air was sufficient. This led to a scandal in the 1850s when many batches of badly prepared canned meat were found to be putrid.
In Australia, the first food canning works opened in 1846 but was a commercial failure. Subsequent ventures were more successful, with the industry hitting its stride in the 1860s.