Lessons from a Can Opener

Lessons from a Can Opener

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This is a story about innovation. And how sometimes an innovation can occur that to one person seems obviously better than the status quo, but others might view as frivolous and unnecessary - to the point that it goes completely unnoticed. Much of navigating life is an analysis of pros and cons, and part of what makes us unique as individuals is that our personal pros and cons lists are all, like, different! Something you think is a pro I might think is a con. Or maybe we both think something’s a con, but we put different weights on the same con which another agreed upon pro might outweigh for only one us! And maybe we don’t even know there’s something out there with a pro to the con. With that in mind, today we're going to look at a can opener. Yes, what better way to start 2022 than with a can opener.

I certainly can't think of anything more ideal. Fun fact! Ever since I was a small child my parents had a Black & Becker electric can opener in the kitchen which was called “Grand Openings.” Maybe that's why I'm like this. Anyway, there has been a new kind of can opener since the 1980s which, while I know has found its way into pop culture at least one time (in an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, for the record), seems to have largely languished away in the kitchen drawer of mild obscurities.

This is what it looks like. Actually, yeah if you just handed, like, a can of beans over to someone and expected them, without instruction, to figure out how to open it with this thing… well I don't expect it would go over very well - even if they had prior can opener experience. I mean, there's no lever. There's no blade.

It's just a handle with a twisty bit and a metal loop. Plus this weird little wheel thing. This does not seem helpful, but in fact, this can opener opens cans in a fundamentally different way than a typical can opener and, having used it for a while, I am surprised these haven't largely displaced the ordinary kind for several reasons. See, an ordinary can opener works by piercing the lid of a can and cutting through it.

Let me show you how to use one. A very basic can opener might look something like this. It’s made of three basic parts - two metal handles which pivot against each other like pliers, and a toothed wheel which is rotated by this grip. The lower handle carries a blade with it that wraps around the other handle and slides just past the wheel.

When you rest the blade on the edge of a can, squeezing the handles together brings that wheel up against the can’s rim, and if you squeeze hard enough, the blade will puncture the lid. And now, since the wheel has those sharp teeth on it, turning the grip while still squeezing the handles pulls the can back towards the blade, making a continuous cut around the edge of the lid until finally it returns to where it started, and the lid can be bent out of the way or removed entirely. [deahhh!] This design isn’t that easy to use, though, because you’re effectively plowing your way through a piece of sheet steel.

An improved design uses a round cutting wheel which is turned along with the toothed friction wheel with these gears. This cuts through the lid with much less effort because the cutting wheel in effect works like a continual puncturing rather than just dragging a knife through the lid. However, the end result is pretty much the same - you end up with a hole in the can’s lid, and now what used to fill that hole presents a nice little bit of danger for you to deal with thanks to its sharp edges. That’s one of the primary things this design purports to fix. These are often sold as “safety can openers” because they can open a can without leaving sharp edges. And they do that by not attacking the lid itself, but its seam.

Now, unsurprisingly, there are many deep rabbit holes you can choose to go down here if you like. The evolution of the can itself is its own fascinating story - did you know the can was invented decades before the can opener? Yeah, the earliest merchants of food sold in cans basically said “you figure it out!” and the first thing you might call a can opener actually came included with every can - often in the form of a key welded to the can which would then be used to aid in peeling away a section of it. Also there are many interesting and noteworthy can opener designs through the years, such as the pocket can openers used to open field rations. But aside from the prior few sentences, this video’s not addressing that history. From now on, assume a standard can in a frictionless vacuum.

Modern cans are sealed not by welding or with solder (or "soulder" if you think the L is important). Rather, a fascinating little bit of engineering is done with the interface between the lid and the sides of the can. The ends of the can’s sides are folded over creating an upside down U-shape, and then the lid of the can is folded over that fold and then back up into it.

This interlocking shape composed of five total layers is then clamped together in a special press called a can seamer, creating the double seam that we know and love. This works very well, and has been the standard can-sealing arrangement for many decades, not just in cans like these but also in beverage cans - although, in its own little bit of cleverness, the aluminum beverage can forgoes a second lid on the bottom for a single sides-and-bottom piece, with an inverted-dome shaped stamped into the bottom to give it strength. Sneaky little trick, that is. Anyway, for the most part, this seam is left intact when cans are opened - ordinary can openers do use the seam for the leverage necessary to puncture the can and for traction when pulling the can towards the cutting blade, but that’s about it.

The seam remains in place, and you’re left with a can that has had a large hole made in its lid. This can opener, though, cuts not through the lid’s top but through the can’s double seam. This allows you to entirely remove the lid intact. And that’s why this thing looks so… odd. The actual cutting surface is part of this small wheel which rides around the edge of the can, and the knurled wheel sitting above and perpendicular to it turns with the crank handle. That wheel has threads on its insides and is attached to the crank handle through those threads, cleverly pulling the knurled wheel into the cutting wheel as the handle is turned.

That creates continuous inward pressure against the cutting blade. Here’s how it works. It’s recommended that you first rotate the crank handle counterclockwise to ensure the turning wheel is extended outward.

Once that’s done, you place the can opener on top of the can using the metal loop here as a guide to keep it level, and with the can’s rim landing between the two wheels. Then you simply start turning the crank. As you start, the turning wheel is pulled inward, clamping the can opener to the can’s seam. As you continue turning, the can is pulled through the opener while the cutting wheel makes a hallow cut into the seam near the top. A strange thing about this is that it doesn’t really look like you’re accomplishing anything at all, however once you’ve made it back to where you started, you can simply remove the opener and the lid simply comes right off without any drama at all.

I don’t know about you, but to me this seems obviously and dramatically better! There is no squeezing force necessary to puncture the lid, the lid comes off intact and much more cleanly with no risk of falling into the can, and of course it is much safer to handle because the cut and thus sharp surface isn’t on its edge. It’s there, but because of the fact that it’s on the underside of the lid you’re not likely to be hurt by it. Same deal for the cut edge on the can. Additionally, because the cutting blade doesn’t ever enter the can, you never get bits of food juices anywhere on the can opener.

It stays completely clean. You can also put the lid back on the can if you like, though of course not with any sort of positive seal so I suppose that’s not much of a benefit. However, probably my most appreciated benefit of this can opener is that de-lidding the can also makes getting its contents out much easier. Taking the lid off entirely means you aren’t fighting that little rim left by ordinary can openers. In fact, I’ve started using this to open certain cans with pull-tops for this reason. Like, for instance, when my inner six-year-old wants his Chef Boyardee.

Seriously, the ravioli? It just slides out! It doesn’t get stuck at the edge of the - oh right, like you don’t know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t kid yourselves. Anyway, I’ve also been opening cans of particularly chunky soups despite having pull-tops, though with these particular cans you actually have to open them from the bottom because they have a very tapered top for whatever reason and that interferes with this little guide piece. Though it also interferes with ordinary can openers, too. Maybe that’s intentional, but my boy Ardee didn’t feel the need.

So what’s the downside of this design? Well, of course there is one. Perhaps two... Maybe three. Firstly and most definitely, while this is a lot easier to get started (at least in my opinion) the small wheel means you need to turn the crank… kind of a lot. It’s not very hard to turn, but it’s on the harder side.

I think it’s easier than some can openers but progress is slower than you might be used to and so it definitely feels like it takes more effort. However, because it doesn't require squeezing force while you turn, I think it might be easier for many people, especially those with disabilities, but I also don’t want to speak for anyone and of course there are far more accessible options out there like the aforementioned electric openers, which are available in no-sharp-edges form. The second downside is gonna to be one of those things that either really matters to you or you just are aware of and so keep in the back of your head.

Occasionally, the cutting action leaves teeny tiny… almost, like, threads of metal hanging off either the lid or the can itself. I’ve seen this happen, but frankly it doesn’t bother me in the slightest because, well, first of all, whatever little shreds might be left by the cutting wheel are on the outside of the can - they don’t actually make it into the tomato paste or whatever. But frankly, even if they did, well that doesn’t really feel like a catastrophe to me but looking at some reviews people have left for similar can openers that does freak some folks out so there’s your fair warning. Again, to me it seems like a non-issue, especially because if you want, you can just look for them and rub them off before you empty the can. The third downside is purely theoretical and that would be potentially spotty can compatibility. Or canpatibility.

I didn’t even think this was an issue, and still kind of doubt it really is, frankly, but since these Chunky cans are foiling the opener on their top side, I thought I’d point it out. It’s worth noting that the patent for this design claims it can work even on square cans so long as they have rounded corners, and since practically all cans are made using a double-seam I don’t think there are many cases where this wouldn’t open a can, but ya know. Maybe your favorite tin of crushed pineapple from that boutique grocer you like will foil this thing. I don’t know.

Now, despite the appearance that I’m pivoting the channel hard into the incredibly lucrative can opener review market… that’s not the point of the video. The point … well ok, it’s pretty esoteric, but why are these still so obscure? I mean, they were invented in the 1980’s and yet I had to make an effort to find this among the sea of other can opener options available in the store. You can tell this is still obscure because the packaging had printed instructions on it.

None of the other can openers bother with that, they just expect someone to have taught you how to use a can opener. This one, though, it’s like “I'm gonna blow your mind!” Now, I can imagine that when it was first released and patent protected, maybe they were pretty expensive but now they can be had for less than $10. And, yeah they’re not super hard to find but they sure aren’t the default. Perhaps this just design doesn’t last as long as an ordinary can opener. But I gotta say that its cutting action seems, at least to me, far more gentle and less likely to wear down with each use so I kinda doubt that but I won’t rule it out.

I think that mainly it’s just… can opener disruption isn’t a thing that crosses people’s minds all that much. For one thing, with the advent of pull-top cans, can openers are objectively less necessary than they used to be. I mean, I still need to use one perhaps weekly but I don’t think it’s the kitchen staple it once was, especially since there seems to be an ongoing cultural shunning of canned foods in general. Which your host thinks smells pretty classist, for the record. Food’s food, and non-perishable low-cost options are important to millions of people. Plus, two words - baked beans.

Anyway, my judgmental feelings towards judgmental people aside, if I were to guess why this isn’t the default can opener by now, I would say that the can opener exists in most people’s imagination as a… fact of life. I mean, most things come with some sort of instructions but your typical manual can opener just doesn’t. It’s a can opener. Someone is supposed to have taught you how to use this at some point. And when you’ve lived your life knowing that cans get opened with one of these, and that the lid is gonna be sharp so be careful, and that while it might fall into can if you’re not paying attention you can always just choose to pay attention, a new-and-improved version may seem entirely superfluous.

Especially when you probably already have a can opener. They’re not exactly a frequent purchase. Side-note, I often tout my Midwesternness because, having grown up here, I smugly think that the values imparted on me of making do with what you have and striving not for perfection but for adequacy are better than whatever your values are.

I kid. Mostly. But, lately I’ve been discovering what I call "Toxic Midwesternininty" in myself and some of my friends. The general aversion towards spending time, effort, and especially money on things which could materially improve your life often causes folks like me to just accept a clearly sub-optimal situation as... Fine™.

Like, for instance, a 60 year old wooden step ladder that’s way too old, rickety and wobbly to be trusted at this point, especially as one is getting on in years. Perhaps the purchase of a new step ladder is obviously warranted, but Toxic Midwesterninity will keep you from buying a new one because you already have a “perfectly good” step ladder but really it’s clearly dangerous at this point. That’s right, I’m calling you out Mr. C.

Throw that thing away! Uh, why am I bringing this up? *snaps fingers* Right, because this feels adjacent to that phenomenon. Having lived my whole life expecting can openers to be a certain way, well I’ve simply never questioned their issues. And even though I knew a can opener existed which didn’t leave sharp edges (I did indeed see that episode of Raymond) never did I try to seek it out because, well, a can opener is a can opener. And I’m a big boy, I know how to handle sharp edges. I only got this because my cheap can opener has started getting really difficult to use, and when looking for a replacement I remembered that someone reminded me about the safety can opener and actually requested a video on it. Regretfully I have no idea who that was or even when that happened at this point, but it lodged in my brain enough to make me look for one and here we are! Wow, this video took a weird turn.

Is there a technology connection to be found here? Well… I suppose it’s more of a social commentary connection, but this can opener has led me to ask a pretty deep question; What else might we be using or doing in day-to-day life which we just assume is how things are and never question? That’s a deep line of inquiry, isn’t it? You can choose to go as deep as you’d like but I’ll just pull us back from that precipice and focus on technologies. I think it’s very normal and useful to be cynical towards what purports to be technological progress. There are plenty of instances where tried-and-true, simple techniques are, frankly, Fine™ if not superior. And a lot of what we’re sold as new and exciting turns out to be a gimmick if we’re lucky.

It’s very easy to overcomplicate things in the name of the new, and understandably that can make us skeptical of innovation full stop. The trouble is, though, if you make the assumption that there aren’t improvements to be made, you may not ever look for them and indeed can miss a lot of progress that is happening around you while you aren't paying attention. Even something as simple as a can opener has had a profound change made to its design that, to me, has improved my life in a surprising (if admittedly small in the grand scheme) way. Yet… not a lot of people seem to have noticed it. Perhaps I’m wrong and many of you have used these and you can’t stand them. But seeing how there was just this one option in the store among well over a dozen standard designs of various quality and colors, I’m thinking this remains pretty obscure.

And as I’ve said (and hopefully demonstrated), I find this far superior in nearly all aspects as a can opener. I opened this video by saying that part of what makes us individuals is that our own pros and cons lists are unique. I still think that’s true - and maybe many of you will have watched this video and found this can opener to be entirely unextraordinary. I mean it is just a can opener after all. But I think we also owe it to ourselves to at least periodically reassess our thoughts on, well, pretty much anything. I have routinely run into people who, for instance, had a bad experience with a heat pump 20 years ago and dread the push for them now based on that fact.

But… 20 years have passed! They’ve gotten better in that time, I promise you. But unless you actively take a look, you may have never realized it. And if you didn’t like what you saw 20 years ago, you probably stopped caring to look. That’s just one example, but the idea remains the same.

Be it a can opener. A heat pump. A software package. A washing machine.

We seem to really struggle with the notion of “well that’s just how things are” or sometimes worse “that’s just how things SHOULD be” and rarely question whether that’s true, or right. If I can find myself baffled by my ignorance of a simple can opener, imagine what else in this world is actually worthy of disruption. But I think equally important is that sometimes it’s not actually the thing itself that needs disrupting, but the ways we think about it. Thanks for watching.

♫ piercingly smooth jazz ♫ …but we put different weights on the same con which another agreed apron pro… eugh Ever since I was as small child, my parents had a black and white… noeu neugh. Black and decker. ...my parents had a black and w… I did it again! These are often sold as safe… [intense thoughts of disappointment] Argh! And they do that by not attacking the c… [more disappointment] Because the cutting wheel is in effect… oops! Lately I’ve been discovering what I call “toxic midwesternininin…" sigh Such as the pocket can openers used to open field rations. But es *belch*. Well, that takes care of that! This video really opens up a can of worms, doesn't it? I mean, it's poking some holes in my thought processes. It seams like a good idea to reflect on this stuff more stuff more often.

Baked beans. Oh crap I forgot to do the audio fade-out!

2022-01-15 19:09

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