When I was 10 I cut my thumb badly trying to fix our electric can opener. It was a tall white appliance, about the size of a loaf of bread standing on its end. A remarkable machine really – it had a mechanism that held the can in place, cut the top, and magnetically removed the lid all without having to touch it.

How did the can opener evolve to such a glorious state from its origins as a superfluous pocket knife accessory? According to Wikipedia, the first can opener was patented in 1855, the modern “butterfly” type opener appeared in the early 1900s and the first electric can openers appeared in 1931. The specific model that accosted me at age 10 was the result of nearly 140 years of research and development.

Last week, while preparing dinner, I was faced with opening a can and no opener could be found. Reaching for my pocket knife, I settled in and prepared for a process which I expected to take at least twenty minutes. To my surprise – it took me no more than a minute to fully open the can using the most basic tool.

How could so much research and development lead to such minor improvements in function? Additionally – while continuously revising the same mechanism (and selling version after version of the same tool) surely it occurred to someone to think about things differently.

Apologies to all for the uncharacteristically late entry and happy belated Valentines Day!

Can Openers
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  • Have you seen this?

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce.html

    It ties into your post moderately well.

    Also, Gladwell’s hair style cracks me up every time.

  • Love it.

    Thanks for posting.

  • Dadio

    Hey Drew, your post reminded me of how I felt camping out for 60 hours when we lost power. It was your manual dexterity that allowed you to use the basic tool to get the job done. Others might not have been able to accomplish what you found to be simple. I survived with only the heat of the fireplace and was able to be thankful for that. It reminded me of Maine camping across the lake years ago. Others might not have enjoyed it as much. My point, you and I adapted to the situation where others would fail. Your point about manufactures selling incremental improvements is a valid one. I used to see it when I worked in the ski industry. Each year the changes were mostly cosmetic and not structural. They were designed to make skiers want the newest look. Like the can opener! I hope this makes sense. We’ll talk soon, Dadio.