Friday 25 October 2013

Men of Yore: Nicolas Appert

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form.  Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards.  We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.

Nicolas Appert

Nicolas Appert was a chef, confectioner and distiller in the town of Chalons-sur-Marne when the French Revolution broke out. During the year of 1795, the French government of the time (called the 'Directory') became alarmed at the difficulties of supplying edible food its many armies scattered across Europe. Preserving food, so that it can be stored through the winter or carried long distances to marauding armies, was an age old problem. Before it attracted the attention of the French, this problem had been solved largely by drying, smoking, fermenting, pickling or soaking in brine. None of which also preserved the taste of the food, or was a hundred percent certain. Food still went 'bad'.
Appert took up the challenge. He also wanted to win the 12,000 franc prize that had been offered to anyone who could invent a way of preserving food in such a way that it would be easy to transport and not degrade or spoil. It took him 14 years of experimentation, but in 1810 he was ready to demonstrate the "Appert Method" and take home the money. Published in 1811 his book on food preservation became a best seller, even though it was titled "L'Art De Conserver, pendant plueieurs annes, Toutes les Substances Animales et Vegetales". (The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years).
The principle that Appert discovered was that food such as soups, fruits, jams or stews could be prevented from decomposing it they were first sealed inside a bottle or jar and then immersed in boiling water for several hours. He had to exclude all air and hold the jar tightly closed with cork, wire and sealing wax for this to work properly.
Appert could never explain why his method worked - he never knew, but the success of his discovery could not be denied. With his prize money he set up a bottling factory (which was still in existence in 1933) that kept the French soldier, and many others, supplied with fresh, easily transported food.
Meanwhile, across the channel, the English were at work improving on Appert's method. The problem was the glass bottles, which frequently broke. Peter Durand took out a patent in 1810 to use metal containers which were easy to make and hard to break. He covered iron cans (which would rust) with a thin plating of tin (which is not attacked by water), and invented the "tin can". By 1813 Durand was supplying the Royal Navy with a steady stream of canned meat.
Canning was a slow process in Appert's time. The cans of food had to be boiled in water for about five hours to make them completely sterile. But in 1860 it was found that adding calcium chloride to the boiling water made it possible to raise the temperature of that water more than 28 degrees Fahrenheit. This higher temperature worked better and faster. Canning became healthier and safer.
By 1819 canning arrived in the USA, but nobody wanted canned food until the outbreak of the civil war, when it was suddenly put on a crash mass-production basis. It took war to popularize the technology, something the revolutionary French would have appreciated.
Having quality food all year round is something many of us may take for granted.  We might walk into shops and supermarkets and pick up cans and packets of food of the shelf and put them in our basket not thinking of the processes that were used to treat/preserve the food and then put it in a convenient sized can.  Yet those processes had to be created, refined and developed, by men.  It is commonly individual men working off of their own backs experimenting in their own time and using their own resources to come up with the new tools and techniques we use in the world, and canning was no different.  Nicolas Appert, a sweet maker by trade (not exactly a macho/butch occupation I might add), got the food preservation ball rolling by developing the containers and methods (pasteurization, years before Louis Pasteur discovered the process).  The ball was then picked up by other men who took the principle and developed it.  That is how things get done: by men doing what they want, what their will is, and then allowing other men to learn from them (either passively by hearing about it on the grapevine, or actively by speaking to them).  Personal Will is the key ingredient, ie doing something because it's what you want to do, regardless of the consequences (eg regardless of whether it makes you a millionaire or it makes you a pariah).

Check out some of the other entries from the 'Men of Yore' series:


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