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FOOD HISTORY

10 Inventions That Changed Food History

Michele Debczak
The humble can opener was a gamechanging culinary innovation.
The humble can opener was a gamechanging culinary innovation. / Brian Hagiwara (can opener) // The Image Bank via Getty Images; filo (background) // DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images
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Even the simplest meals we eat today were made possible by major innovations in food history. Who “invented” sliced bread? How did the microwave oven come to be? And what genius gave us the spork? Grab your cotton candy machines and your zucchini spiralizers and check out some of the inventions that shaped the culinary world as we know it, adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.

 1. The Wok

The wok is one of the most versatile and influential cooking instruments ever invented, and the Chinese have been using it for as long as 3000 years. The metal pan is distinguished by its traditionally rounded bottom and large surface area, which makes it possible to braise, boil, steam, and stir-fry foods all in one place. Another benefit of the kitchen tool is something called wok hei. This Cantonese term was translated to “breath of the wok” by food writer Grace Young, and it’s used to describe the unique, seared flavor the pan imparts to food. When a wok reaches super high temperatures, it zaps excess moisture from the ingredients and promotes caramelization to create more concentrated flavors. 

 2. The Oven

Fire is often cited as one of the most important discoveries in human history, and for good reason: It had a huge impact on human development. But even as people began to cook, there was a lot that they couldn’t easily achieve with an open flame, like evenly cooking food at controlled temperatures. For that, they needed ovens.

The earliest ovens date back 30,000 years to Central Europe. They consisted of a large pit dug into the earth lined with heat-conducting stones; hot coals or ash provided consistent heat to the food, and a layer of dirt on top kept that heat contained. These earth ovens cooked food slowly at low temperatures, breaking them down and making the nutrients easier to absorb. From Māori hāngi to New England clambakes, underground ovens are still used for celebratory feasts around the world today—though what we cook with them has changed a bit over the millennia. Bones discovered near ancient earth ovens indicate that mammoth was the main course at some of the first barbecues.

3. The Microwave

Early Microwave
Early Microwave / Harrison/GettyImages

Humans have invented a lot of tools to heat food since those early earth ovens. After the emergence of wood-fired brick ovens in ancient times, gas ovens and electric stoves appeared in the 19th century. But the biggest recent leap in cooking technology may be the microwave oven. Raytheon Company engineer Percy LeBaron Spencer was visiting a lab testing microwave-producing magnetrons in 1945 when he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. His dry-cleaning bill ended up being a small price to pay for the flash of inspiration he had that day. As the story goes, Spencer sent out for some uncooked popcorn, and when it popped in front of the active magnetron, Spencer realized that microwave radiation could be used as a quick and convenient heat source for cooking. Later that year, he filed a patent for the microwave oven.

 4. Ancient Refrigerators

For ancient cooks, finding a way to keep fresh food cold became just as important as cooking it. The Chinese practiced rudimentary refrigeration 3000 years ago by collecting ice and storing it. In the following centuries, the Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, Hebrews, and Romans all developed ways to chill food and drinks, either by harvesting snow and ice or making it themselves.

The most impressive ancient refrigerator may be the yakhchāls of Persia. Developed around 400 BCE, these pointed domes were designed to keep ice frozen in a hot desert climate. Water from a nearby aqueduct would feed a chamber dug deep into the cool sand beneath the structure. These ice houses sometimes featured wind catching mechanisms that diverted breezes underground, where they would be chilled. This feature, called a bâdgir, is still used in desert architecture in Iran today.

In addition to preserving food, Persians used refrigeration to make delicious desserts. Traditional frozen treats like sharbat and  faloodeh are products of the yakhchāls of ancient Persia.

 5. The Can Opener

Bully Beef Can Opener
Bully Beef can opener; tins of bully beef featured in the rations of armies until the Second World War. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Preservation is a major theme of food history’s biggest breakthroughs. When modern canning was invented in the early 1800s, eating nutritious meals on long journeys or during hard winters became more feasible. But perhaps just as important as canning is the invention that made cans easier to use. Believe it or not, the can opener came nearly five decades after the first metal cans. Before that, people literally had to chisel away at their containers to get dinner.

While he may not have been the very first person to create a can opener—some sources cite the UK’s Robert Yates—American inventor Ezra J. Warner may be the world’s most influential can opener inventor. Warner patented his design for an early can opener in 1858. It featured a blade sharp enough to penetrate the lid and a guard to protect the outside of the can. By sawing the tool in a circle, users could remove the lid without a hammer and chisel. Warner’s design never went mainstream, but it was used by soldiers during the Civil War. Some grocers also used it to pre-open cans for customers.

Can openers underwent various updates until the 1920s, when Charles Arthur Bunker debuted a device that uses a cutting wheel and a turnable knob. With a tool that made them easy to open, canned goods officially went from survival food to convenience item. 

6. The Cheese Grater

The cheese grater is another tool that makes life in the kitchen easier, and it’s older than you might think. According to the Oxford Companion to Cheese, Mesopotamians in the 3rd millennium BCE had perforated bowls that might have been used to grate sun-dried cheese. A Hittite text from a millennium later includes a term that could be translated to “grated” cheese. By the 9th century BCE, there are clear descriptions and archaeological finds of cheese graters from the Greek and Roman civilizations. Homer’s Iliad actually refers to what may be a candidate for the oddest cocktail in history—wine, grated goat cheese, and barley meal.

 7. The Bread Slicing Machine

The invention of sliced bread is considered a high watermark for human ingenuity, but when exactly did pre-cut loaves become standard? In 1928, Iowa inventor Otto Rohwedder filed a patent for a machine that sliced entire loaves of bread at once. Not everyone saw the genius in his idea, however. Bakers worried that slicing bread in-house would cause it to go stale faster or even fall apart. To prevent this, Rohwedder recommended holding the slices together with pins, which added an annoying hurdle to an item that was meant to be convenient.

Eventually, Rohwedder found a buyer for his machine in the Chillicothe Baking Company, in Chillicothe, Missouri. The company was set to debut Kleen Maid Sliced Bread on July 7, 1928. The day before, the Constitution-Tribune published a glowing endorsement—and also ran an ad calling the product “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” That copy is believed to be the origin of the phrase the greatest thing since sliced bread. Which means “since sliced bread” is a quantifiable length of time, and if you’re reading this in 2022, that length is about 94 years.

8. The Egg Carton

Street Vendor Holding Carton of Eggs
Street Vendor Holding Carton of Eggs / David Turnley/GettyImages

Twenty-nine years BSB (Before Sliced Bread), Scientific American wrote up an early blurb about the humble egg carton. While it’s difficult to definitively say who invented it—the device wasn’t actually patented until 1928—this note from 1899 says that Robert J. Barkley of Kansas had created a carton “designed to contain a dozen eggs, and to obviate the necessity of counting and of the danger of breaking the eggs by frequent handling.”

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much more info out there about Barkley, except that he died in 1905, with his local newspaper noting that although “the public has been somewhat slow in adopting [egg cartons] for general use . . . they are destined to some day be used everywhere.”

 9. The Spork

Early forks and spoons have been traced back to Ancient Egypt, but the spork wouldn't appear until much later. American doctor Samuel W. Francis received a patent for his spoon-fork-knife hybrid in 1874, and it was just one of his many creative inventions. Other ideas he came up with included a matchbox that ignited internally and a cane with an inner compartment for bus money. Francis's new utensil wouldn't take off until the 1950s, when Hyde W. Ballard trademarked the name spork and the plastic revolution made it easy to manufacture. Francis died in 1886 without knowing that his clever eating tool would become his greatest legacy. 

(Interesting aside: While Francis’s proto-spork seemed to usher in the modern spork era, our fact-checker sent over this Ancient Roman utensil, which, as he noted, is “not a spork, but it’s not NOT a spork!” Hard to argue.)

 10. Cling Wrap

Cling wrap is one of the most useful things to have in your kitchen, and it was invented by accident. In 1933, a lab worker named Ralph Wiley at Dow Chemical was cleaning equipment being used to develop dry cleaning products when he saw that a thin plastic film had formed inside a vial. The material naturally adhered to surfaces while blocking water and oxygen molecules. Though the plastic was officially called polyvinylidene chloride, Wiley’s boss John Reilly named it Saran, supposedly after his wife Sarah and his daughter Ann.

The new product had many applications. Dow Chemical first developed it as a spray that protected military fighter planes from the elements. Later, it was used to make car upholstery and military combat boots. It wasn’t until 1949 that Dow Chemical got rid of Saran’s off-putting odor and green color and applied its protective qualities to food. Today, Saran Wrap is actually polyethylene, which may not be as clingy as the original material, but has environmental benefits, and is probably healthier for use with food. Maybe Saran Wrap wasn’t as revolutionary as the first oven or refrigerator, but it has saved countless leftovers in the decades since.

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