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What is a can Opener?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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A can opener is a device that opens cans. There are several different types that open different sizes of metal food cans. Basically, one works by first puncturing the metal and then cutting around the circular top of the can to remove the lid. Oddly, the can opener was invented about 50 years after metal cans were invented. Before that, people used tools such as hammers, chisels, and knives to open the thick tin cans.

When cans were made thinner, inventions for opening them became possible. The first one was patented by Connecticut's Ezra Warner in 1858, and his design is known as a bayonet and sickle type. The bayonet part punctures the metal can and the sickle mechanism removes the lid to open it. Warner's device still left rough edges, and it wasn't used in households, but rather by grocers and the American military.

William Lyman invented an easy to operate can opener with a wheel-shaped cutter in 1870, and the Star Can Company of San Francisco added a serrated edge to Lyman's design in 1925. The first electric model was invented in 1931, and it took the idea of the cutting wheel and made it electric. This design kept evolving to eliminate problems, such as using a magnet to prevent the lid from falling into the can.

Handheld or manual openers are still used today, especially on camping trips. Electric can openers were once wall-mounted, but today under-cabinet and freestanding versions are popular. Although many modern households use electric models, it's a good idea to have a manual one handy in the home in case of a power outage.

The freestanding type of can opener was first invented by Walter Hess Bodle in the early 1950s, and his invention was manufactured by the Union Die Casting Company in the 1950s and 1960s. These freestanding versions were available in popular colors of the time, including avocado, turquoise, and bright pink. Can openers that don’t leave any sharp edges on the lid are now available, as are types that open extra large cans.

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Discussion Comments
By shell4life — On Oct 20, 2012

Does anyone here use a cordless can opener? They are so cute and convenient!

My friend has one. It is battery powered, and when you turn it on, it travels around the edge of the can, instead of making the can turn.

It's really small, and she stores it in a drawer. It's like a little lid-eater! She charges it up overnight, and it's ready to go in the morning.

By DylanB — On Oct 20, 2012

I remember using my mom's old can opener. It had a narrow metal handle that cut into my hand as I turned it.

I now have one with a big, rounded plastic handle. It is so much more comfortable. I don't risk bruising my hand when I use it, either!

I don't know why old can openers had this type of little metal handle. You really had to put forth force to use it, and it hurt.

By kylee07drg — On Oct 19, 2012

@John57 – I believe they do still make those, because I got one as a wedding gift just a couple of years ago. I use it for opening cans of evaporated and condensed milk.

I poke a hole in the lid on either side of the can. This lets air in and helps the milk flow out faster.

It's much less messy than using a regular can opener and pouring the milk out from a lidless can. Leaving most of the lid in place lets the hole act as a spout and you minimize spills.

By seag47 — On Oct 19, 2012

I could never get the hang of the electric can opener. Even though it had a magnet, I couldn't seem to get the positioning right.

I would press the button to start it, but the can would just stay in one spot, and the opener would make a whirring noise. It took several tries for me to finally get it in the right position to be opened.

I don't like using the handheld kind, because I have arthritis in my fingers, and it really hurts to put forth this much effort. I just have to keep trying with the electric can opener and hoping for the best.

By John57 — On Sep 21, 2012

Years ago I remember using a can opener with a small pointed edge to open up a can where I wanted to slowly pour the liquid out. This was magnetized and always stayed on the side of our refrigerator. I wonder if they still make this style of can opener. It has been years since I have seen one anywhere.

By Mykol — On Sep 21, 2012

They make a lot of cans anymore with a lid you open up with a flip top so there aren't nearly as many uses for a can opener as there has been in the past.

Most all of the soup cans I buy don't need a can opener to use them. A few years ago I bought a battery operated can opener that has worked out well. It doesn't take up any more space than a manual one, but takes no effort at all.

All I do is place the can opener on top of the can I want to open, push a button and let the can opener do the work. It completely removes the lid so there are no sharp edges left which I really like as well.

By sunshined — On Sep 20, 2012

I remember the electric can openers in the bright colors. My mom had a turquoise one that always sat out on the counter. When I moved into my first apartment I bought a Toastmaster can opener that I also had sitting out for quick access.

Now I don't like to have a lot of appliances cluttering up my kitchen counter unless they get used every day. I don't use a can opener that often, so prefer to keep a small manual one in a drawer. This takes up less space and might take a little bit more muscle power, but I would rather use this than have an electric one taking up valuable counter space.

By myharley — On Sep 20, 2012

A can opener is one of those things you don't think much about, until you realize you don't have one and need one.

One year on a camping trip we realized we had forgot to bring a can opener. A lot of our food was canned food and it was quite a challenge figuring out the best way to open up the cans of food we had brought along. We were looking around for anything sharp and heavy that we thought we help.

We finally decided we needed to make a trip to town anyway and buying a hand held can opener was the first thing on our list.

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