Saturday, 26 October 2013

The invention of the crown cork

"Background to the Crown" is a frustrating booklet in some ways. The end is rather anticlimatic and brief. There's no real description of how William Painter came up with the idea, nor how he put it into practice. Just one brief paragraph:

"In the summer of 1891 William Painter took a holiday and while staying at a seaside resort on Rhode Island he drew up the design for an "over the top" sealing cap, which was destined to revolutionize the bottling industry. In other words the "Crown" was born.

The British patent - No. 2031 of 1892 - was issued on February the 2nd. Plate 8 is a reproduction of the first sheet of drawings accompanying the patent."
"Background to the Crown" by Cecil J. Parker.

I'm sure there must have been a lot more to the invention than that. Rhode Island. Mmm. Where Dann brews for Pretty Things is almost in Rhode Island. And pretty close to the coast. Not sure why I bothered to mention that.

"It was a remarkable specification. Its basic simplicity combined with functional perfection to satisfy the whole list of requirements for a faultless closure. The opening paragraph of the specification is worthy of quotation. It reads as follows:-

"The objects of my invention are to seal bottles as effectually and reliably as can be done by the use of corks and fastening wires or cords, and to do this with a substantial saaving in the cost of sealing materials as well as with economy in applying the sealing devices to the bottles, it being understood that the said sealing devices may be thrown away after having been used once as is common with ordinary corks."

These claims were sell justified, as nearly sixty years of ever expanding usage have proved."
"Background to the Crown" by Cecil J. Parker.

I'm not sure why the author found that passage so worthy of quoting. It's a little dry. Though at the end there's the best clue as to the date of the booklet. Nearly 50 years from 1892 would date it to around 1950. Not far from my last guess.

"Like other new closures the "Crown" was received by the bottling industry with a certain degree of scepticism. Accustomed as they were to using more elaborate means of sealing, its very simplicity made them hesitant to give credence to its efficiency. But William Painter and his associates were not to be discouraged. The first foot-operated machine was quickly designed and built, followed by the single head power crowner. In 1899 the multiple headed machine made its appearance, strangely different from but ultimately to develop into the highly efficient and well-known "Jumbo".

The first bottlers who were sufficiently far sighted to give the new "Crown" closure a trial were soon convinced that its merits were not overstated. With the recently developed high output automatic bottle making machines, the glass manufacturers found the simplified "Crown" finish eminently suitable to their production methods. The streamlined shape of the "Crown" enabled it to be fed rapidly to the crowning heads and as a consequence high speed continuous bottling became almost overnigh an established achievement.

For over fifty years many have racked their brains to find a better closure than the "Crown" but all have failed. This is partly due to the fact that practically all possible modifications of the cap were foreseen by the inventor himself and covered in various specifications. Its design has changed only in very minor detail from the original one laid down so long ago. Its essential principle remains unaltered from that day to this. It is the perfect closure."
"Background to the Crown" by Cecil J. Parker.

Having seen the other weird and wonderful bottle degsigns, I can understand why bottle makers would have liked the simple shape required for a crown cork. And no fiddly bits of wire or scary spikes.

Could you invent a better way of closing beer bottles than the crown cork? I doubt it somehow. I don't see how you could come up with something cheaper or simpler. That it has survived a further 60 years and remains by streets the most popular way of sealing beer bottles says something.


Gary Gillman said...

It's used to this day with great success. It's one of those key inventions, like the wheel (almost) or zipper.

The only caution I can remember reading is in the article you reprinted here which we discussed called Cyril Ray Cracks A Bottle of Russian Stout, from the 1960's. In that article, Ray, a noted wine and food writer, commented that Brian Guinness, scion of the famous brewing clan, told him that if you seal the tops of bottles of Courage IRS with wax, it "gets under the skirts" of the crown enclosure and will preserve the beer longer due to cutting off ingress of oxygen. (Ray wrote after that, "if you'll pardon the expression", which is the kind of decorous touch you don't find as often today).

They knew some oxygen gets in and some bottles closed in this way will lose oxygen over a very long period, but one not material for normal purposes.

Modern crown corks often get a white plastic undercoating which is supposed to absorb oxygen in some fashion, but whether this really works I cannot say.

I often keep bottles in the fridge a few days after opening, to drink later or to use in blending. (Last night I made a three treads again, a very dry craft stout which is of that generation here that followed the post-1950's Guinness model, a rich Imperial Porter and just a splash of a very soy-like (probably overage) Guinness Special Extra Stout. Darn good result if I may say). I just crimp back on the crown caps, sometimes using one from a different bottle to make it tighter, and it works just fine. Or more commonly I use a wine or whisky cork. If the beer loses carbonation this is all to the good usually but I'm talking of just a few days.


Jeff Renner said...

There have teen two changes in crown caps that have been made in my lifetime that I am aware. Some years ago, a disk of very thin foil was added to cover the bare cork disk. More recently, the cork was done away with entirely and replaced with a ring of compressible plastic.

When I was a boy, we would occasionally entertain ourselves by making "badges" with fancy colorful crown caps. We'd carefully pry out the cork disk, put it inside our shirt and press it into the cap on the outside of the shirt, trapping the fabric between the two. This worked best with a thin fabric such as a tee-shirt.

We were easily entertained back before 300 cable television channels. ;-)