I hope it’s no character flaw, but I seem to go through a lot of can openers, searching for that mythical perfect device. They’re so ubiquitous that you’d be forgiven for not giving them a second thought. Inventive, for they make use of some basic physical principles to pierce metal, using hand-power alone. Necessary, for the contents of any can are as remote as a distant country without one. Despite their place in our material culture, most recent can openers are oddly low-quality tools. They often fail to effectively do their single core ‘job-to-be-done;’ opening a can.
Instead, we’re left to fish razor sharp lids out of the can. Some models, especially those that drag a sharp wedge through the lid might leave small fragments of metal that can then break off into our dinner. Other versions scar the interior of the can, distributing the can liner into our food. I’ve got a bit of an obsession with can openers. Specifically with mechanical can openers, those powered by human hands, rather than electric variants. I’m curious where they came from, but also how they seem to have frozen in time; failing to be improved by any innovation.
I’d like to ‘open up’ the story of can openers (can opener pun?), starting with a little basic context about the can. I think the failure of everyday can openers to much improve beyond their invention can tell us a lot about a whole class of made things that have become cheap and disposable commodities. It describes an arc of an invention where it reaches some sort of complacent plateau, from which only a step-change in thinking will break it free.