The canned drink is one of the most familiar and practical inventions of the twentieth century. Until Ermal Fraze (1913-1989) came along, the problem was how to open them. Before his ring pull, cans had to be opened with a “church key,” a tool similar to a bottle opener but with a sharp point at either end. One end was used to make a hole in the top to drink from, and the other to make a smaller hole for air to enter, allowing the liquid inside to escape.
Fraze struck upon the idea of the ring pull when he was at a picnic and had forgotten his church key. Like most people of that time, he was aware that it was easy to injure yourself while trying to open a can with a sharp object. In the event he managed to improvise by using the car fender to open his drinks, but he realized that it would be much simpler if cans could always be opened without a separate tool.
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Fraze’s invention went through several stages that culminated in the “pull-top” can. Similar to today’s cans, this had a small tab of metal, the edge of which was scored, attached by a rivet to a ring. By pulling the ring, the tab would be pulled out of the can, opening a hole that was large enough to let both air in and liquid out. Fraze’s innovation was the rivet, and his invention proved a hit. It was first picked up by the Pittsburgh Brewing Company in the early 1960s, and by 1965 more than 75 percent of brewers in the United States were using his pull-top, although the patent was not awarded to him until 1967.
While it certainly solved one problem, the pull-top did generate a significant amount of litter. This led in the 1970s to the development of the nonremovable tops in use today. Fraze’s invention has been superseded, but the idea is the same, and his pull-tops are still used widely in some areas of the world.