American Can Company: Revolution in Containers
Excerpts of William C. Stolk; Address of The Newcomen Society of North America
April 21, 1960 - Printed July 1960
These new cans are among the first results of a new dimension we have been given our research since the war. Some of the major successes of the past were the result of purely “accidential research.” But now we try to do more intentional research. We have regularl five year research and development programs planned to stimulate the creation of new ideas.
-William C. Stolk
By concidence, this year of our Lord 1960 is the sesquicentennial of the tin can. They tin can was patented in 1810. In that year, an English man, Peter Durand, made public a successful method of using sealed vessels of tin plate or other metals for preserving food. We have come far in the 150 years since then.
The modern metal container developed out of much of the same technical achievements as the steam locomotive. It too has been the result of precision instrumentation, of close specifications, of constantly improved metals, and of steadily increased knowledge of the handling of heat.
Perhaps no product of modern industry is better known then the metal container – or so wholly taken for granted.
Its body is a piece of steel about 100th of an inch thick. Next to this, both inside and outside, is a layer of tin, about a ten-thousandth of an inch thick.
We make cans for hundreds of different products, requiring thousands of differing sets of specifications. The steel industry supplies us with tin plate of four different chemical specifications; of ten different gauges or degrees of thinness; of seven different temper rollings; and of 9-different tin-coat thicknesses.
The architecture of the “simple little tin can” is so complex that the men who design it have to span the spectrum of scientific knowledge that ranges from metallurgy to bacteriology.
And you should see the machinery on which we manufacture these can bodies, more than 500 to the minute, or nearly 10 a second. A can body that is a thousandth of an inch off-size, will stop the whole line automatically.
We make, all told, some 20,000 kinds and sizes of metal containers, and it is our business to deliver them from over 50 factories, in the right amounts and at the exact time the canner needs them.
The American Can Company was founded in 1901, the first year of the 20th century.
Our company was only one of hundreads of new industrial promotions. How ambititious they were is shown by some of the names given them. At least thirty companies, including ours, were formed with the first name “American.” There were half a dozen “Internationals” and “Nationals” and a dozen “Uniteds,” including Untied States Steel.
Many of these promotions were intended to bring together as many competitors as possible.
Our company was no exception. Into it was put at least 90 percent of the Nation’s can-making capacity, and most of those were sold out signed agreements not to go back into can-making for 15 years, within 3,000 miles of Chicago.
Distance from can plant to cannery is of great importance. Empty cans are expensive to ship as they are mostly air.
1908 – The novelty of the “sanitary can” was that the entire top was put on in one piece after the can was filled.
The new method of seaming-on the ends made possible by highly automatic manufacture of the cans, as well as more convenience in filling.
The sanitary can was a milestone in metal-container history. But in late 1913 the U.S. Attorney General filed suit against the American Can Company under the Sherman Antitrust Act, and asked that the Company be broken up. The government lawyers argued that the company had been formed to create a monopoly, and was still trying to do so.
In February, 1916, Federal Judge Rose, at Baltimore, handed down his decision. He agreed with the government lawyers on the first charge, but not on the second. He found that the Company had been, as he put it, “conceived in the sin of defying the Antitrust law.” But he also found that “for some time before 1913 (it) had done nothing of which any competitior or any consumer of cans complains, or anything which strikes a disinterested outsider as unfair or unethical.”
Introduced the “Mira Can” in 1953 which was the metal can for soft drinks. The future depends on the consumer’s willingness to pay for the convenience of the no non-returnable container.
In 1958 we started making the first aluminum cans ever to be produced in commercial quantities in this Country. They were for motor oil.
But there is no law that holds us to making metal containers. We went into paper containers 40 years ago, and we’ve been studying other kinds of containers ever since.
Thus, the present form product divisions of the American Can Company and are all leaders in their fields – Bradley-Sun, in metal and plastic squeeze tubes; Canco in metal, paper milk, and composite containers; Dixie Cup (a household word); and Marathon in paper-making and converting for packaging and household tissues.
Our products are opened today and thrown away tomorrow. Our most cherished achievements have been unknown and all but invisible to the consumer. Yet they rank with the telephone, the automobile, and the electric light in the revolutionary effects they have had on modern living.