THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: NOVEMBER 17, 1749

Birth of  Nicolas Appert, the Father of Canning

nicolas-appert-father-of-canningNicolas Appert (1749-1841) may not have understood the science behind food preservation, yet his canning process is directly responsible for the multitude of prepared foods that sit on grocery store shelves around the world.

Nicolas Appert was born on November 17, 1749 at Chalons-sur-Marne, France. The son of an inn-keeper, he received no formal education. He had an interest in food preservation and, at an early age, learned how to brew beer and pickle foods. Appert served an apprenticeship as a chef at the Palais Royal Hotel in Chalons, France. In 1780, he moved to Paris, where he excelled as a confectioner, delighting customers with his delicious pastries and candies.

During the late eighteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte expanded his quest to conquer the world. As French troops invaded neighboring countries, it soon became apparent to the government that world conquest would not be within its grasp without the ability to carry foods for an extended time without spoilage. The executive branch, known as the Directory, offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a practical means of preserving food for the army during its long forays.

Appert began a fourteen-year quest, determined to win the prize. Chemistry at this time was a little known science and there was virtually no knowledge of bacteriology. Appert’s experiments on the preservation of meats and vegetables for winter use was conducted through trial-and-error. He had little reference on which to rely since there was only one published work on food preservation through sterilization, written by Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799). Appert based his process on heating foods to temperatures in excess of 100o degrees Celsius (212o degrees Fahrenheit), the temperature at which water boils. To do this, Appert used an autoclave, a device that uses steam under extreme pressure to sterilize foods.

In 1804, Appert opened the world’s first canning factory in the French town of Massy, south of Paris. By 1809, he had succeeded in preserving certain foods and presented his findings to the government. Before awarding the prize, the government required that his findings be published. In 1810, he published Le Livre de to us les Menages, ou l’Art de Conserver pendant plesieurs annees toutes les Substances Animales et Vegetables. (The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years). Upon publication, the Directory presented him with the 12,000 franc award. His work received critical acclaim and a gold medal from the Societe d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale. (Society for the Encouragement of National Industry.)

“Nicolas Appert.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Vol. 20. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 18-19. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 

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