Appert, Nicolas (1752-1841) French Food Technologist (Scientist)

Nicolas Appert invented the food-preserving process of boiling (and thereby sterilizing) food in glass jars—the basis of modern canning. His invention freed people from the need for fresh food, allowing them to preserve it by an easy process (as opposed to salting or smoking), enabling food to be kept over long periods of time. Appert originally developed his process at the behest of the French military, and canning played an important role in subsequent military history, though it also played a significant role in the broader society. Canning remains an integral part of society, as the pace of modern life allows less time for buying and preparing fresh food.

Nicolas-Francois Appert was born on October 23, 1752, at Chalons-sur-Marne, just east of Paris, France. His father was an innkeeper who educated his son in the arts of brewing and pickling, tasks that were an integral part of running a hotel at that time. Appert apprenticed as a chef and confectioner at the Palais Royal Hotel in Chalons and then served the Duke and Duchess of Deux-Ponts in these capacities. He subsequently moved to Paris, where he established himself as a renowned confectioner by 1780. He was also a champagne bottler, a practice that may have influenced his future in canning.

During the Napoleonic era, with the French military spreading its influence geographically, the challenge of feeding the army and navy became such an acute problem that the French Directory offered a prize in 1795 for a practical solution for preserving food. Appert rose to the challenge, experimenting over the next 14 years in search of a satisfactory food-preservation method.

With little scientific understanding, Appert proceeded intuitively, relying on trial-and-error as his primary methodology. Eventually, he happened upon his preserving technique of heating foods to above the boiling point of water in an autoclave of his own design, then submerging glass jars and bottles filled with food, which he then corked and sealed with wax. He experimented with about 70 different types of food before he was satisfied with his results in preservation.

By 1804, Appert had devised a method refined enough to open the world’s first canning factory, thanks to the financial support of de la Reyniere. Aptly called the House of Appert, it was located in Massy, just south of Paris. By 1809, he had succeeded in preserving food in jars, which he submitted to the Directory for trials. Testing by the French Navy and the Consulting Bureau on Arts and Manufacturing confirmed the success of Appert’s canning process, as the food stayed preserved. On January 30, 1810, Appert received the 12,000-franc prize, which he invested in his business. The next year, he published an account of his findings, entitled The Art of Preserving all Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years, in fulfillment of one of the contest requirements that he disseminate his methods and research.

Appert’s contributions to society did not end with the canning process. Also in 1810, he invented peppermint schnapps as an ice-cream topping. Napoleon’s wife, Marie-Louise, the duchess of Parma, brought the recipe back to Austria, where it became a hit not only as a condiment but also as a drink. He also invented the bouillon cube, a dried concentrate that could be rehydrated into a soup base, and devised an acid-free method of extracting gelatin from bones.

In 1812, Appert received a gold medal from the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry, and a decade later, he was named a "Benefactor of Humanity." That same year, in 1822, Appert improved upon his canning method by switching from the use of glass jars sealed with cork and wax to using cylindrical tin-plated steel cans, the method inherited by the modern canning industry. The House of Appert continued to can food until 1933, and Appert’s basic technique remains in use currently.

The collapse of the Napoleonic empire left Appert bankrupt, as enemies of the old regime trashed his factories. He died in Massy on June 3, 1841. After he died, louis pasteur established the scientific basis for much of Appert’s work, revealing the biological and chemical means of food decay as well as the science of food preservation.

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