Nicolas 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.
Inspired by War
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 C (212o F), 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.)
The entire process was time consuming, taking about five hours to complete the sterilization. It involved placing food in glass bottles, loosely stopped with corks and immersing them in hot water. Once the bottles were heated, they were removed and sealed tightly with corks and sealing wax, then reinforced with wire. Appert demonstrated that this process would keep food from spoiling for extended periods of time, provided the seals were not broken. It was used to preserve soups, meats, vegetables, juices, various dairy products, jams, jellies, and syrups. Although Appert could never explain why his food preservation process succeeded, he is, nevertheless, credited with being the father of canning. It would be another half century before his countryman, Louis Pasteur, explained the relationship between microbes and food spoilage, further validating Appert's basic processes.
Appert used his winnings to finance his canning factory at Massy, which continued to operate for another 123 years, until 1933. When canned foods were studied in England, it became apparent that glass bottles posed a problem because of breakage. In 1810, Peter Durand patented metal containers. Twelve years later, Appert advanced his process from the use of glass jars to cylindrical tin-plated steel cans. This innovation increased the portability of food for both the English and French military.
In addition to perfecting the autoclave, Appert was responsible for numerous inventions, including the bouillon cube. He also devised a method for extracting gelatin from bones without using acid. Despite his success in the field of food preservation and the recognition he received from his government, Appert died in poverty on June 3, 1841 in Massy, France. He was buried in a common grave.
A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, Wiley-Interscience, 1969.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, 5th edition, Columbia University Press, 1993.
The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Helicon Publishing Ltd., 1998.
Encarta Encyclopedia 99, Microsoft Corporation, 1993-1998.
Washington Post, April 14, 1999.
Encyclopaedia Britannica Online http://members.eb.com/bol/topic?eu=8180&sctn=1 (January 12, 2000).
"Nicolas Appert (c1750-1841," http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/bc/ahp/MBG/MBG4/Appert.html (January 12, 2000). □
Nicolas Appert was born in 1749 in Châlons, which lies in the Champagne district of France. He developed an industrial method for canning food and beverages that is still used today.
Appert, who came from a long line of farmers and innkeepers, was born at his family's inn. As a boy, he learned to cook and to cork champagne bottles. He learned more about food and wine by working at other inns and as a master chef for a duke and duchess.
In 1784 Appert used an inheritance to open a candy and grocery shop in Paris. The following year, he married Elisabeth Benoist, with whom he had five children. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Appert contributed money to the revolutionary army and represented his political district at Louis XVI's execution. His prominence led to his arrest on false charges during the chaotic period known as the Terror.
As his grocery business expanded into wholesale produce in the 1790s, Appert began to experiment with preserving food beyond the harvest season. He was dissatisfied with traditional preservation techniques such as drying or adding sugar, salt, or vinegar because he believed they spoiled the taste and healthfulness of food. Appert used champagne bottles, which were thick enough to withstand the pressure of bubbles, for his first experiments. He filled them with prepared food, leaving room at the top for expansion, corked and bound them, and then heated them in boiling water. He hypothesized that "heat destroys or at least neutralizes the fermentation that changes the quality of animal and vegetable substances." Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) later credited Appert with being the first to understand the basic principle of pasteurization.
By 1802 Appert had moved from his Paris workshop to a large property in Massy that combined factory and farm so that food could be preserved where it was grown. One of the factory kitchens was equipped with large brass pots with compartments for holding meat or chicken and faucets on the bottom for pouring off broth. Another was reserved for dairy products and a third for fruits and vegetables. There was a room for washing and rinsing jars, another for labeling and packaging, and a laboratory for testing new products. Appert supervised the factory, which employed up to fifty people during harvest season, and continued to maintain his shop in Paris.
Appert enlarged his markets throughout the early 1800s. He traveled to port cities in France and asked naval authorities to test his preserved meats and vegetables as a remedy for malnutrition during long ocean voyages. After a year on board ship, the food was praised for its perfect preservation and acclaimed as "advantageous for sailors." Appert also continued to enlarge his range of products. He experimented with red wine, which spoiled during exportation, by resealing and heating several bottles and then storing them on a Caribbean-bound ship. Two years later, when the bottles were returned, a wine connoisseur compared them to unpreserved wine Appert had kept in his cellar. He found the preserved wine superior in every dimension.
In an attempt to win support for his research, Appert took samples of his food to the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. He was awarded 12,000 francs with the stipulation that he either patent his process or publish a detailed description. Appert, who believed he was serving humanity by sharing his discoveries, wrote The Art of Preserving All Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years in 1810. Reviews were positive, and two revised editions as well as German, English, Italian, and Swedish translations followed. Despite his success, Appert struggled financially because of the high cost of his equipment. His prospects were beginning to improve when the Prussian and Austrian armies invaded France in 1814 and destroyed his factory at Massy. One year later, after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the British turned his property into a hospital.
Forced to start over at age 64, Appert received a subsidy from the government to build a new factory in Paris that used tin cans instead of glass jars. He designed his own tinsmith where up to 1,500 cans per month were made to his specifications. He won a gold medal for his canned products in 1820 and a 2,000-franc prize from the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry in 1824. Appert's last invention was a process for making gelatin, dried bouillon, and concentrated milk in an autoclave, a kind of pressure cooker.
When the government stopped subsidizing the rent on his Paris factory, Appert moved yet again and built a new factory at the age of 78. He received a small award from the Ministry of Commerce and Transportation in 1832, but was refused the prestigious Legion of Honor award. He retired in 1836 to Massy. He died alone in 1841 at the age of 91 and was buried in a pauper's grave.