Some inventions appear small at first glance, but often a closer look proves a simple device can have a revolutionary impact. Such is the case with the “crown cap,” the ubiquitous, indispensable style of bottle cap found on beer and soft drink bottles around the world, created in 1891 by William Painter.
Born in Ireland in 1838, Painter, at the age of 20, immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities. He settled in Baltimore, Maryland, and embarked on a life as an inventor, earning more than 80 patents over the course of his lifetime.
Though he had developed a number of ingenious devices such as a paper-folding machine, safety ejection seat for passenger trains, and a machine for detecting counterfeit currency, none were as successful as he had hoped they would be, and he soon came to believe that his best chances at finding fortune would come from creating a disposable object that would sell in very large quantities.
The result of his years of persistence and undying innovative spirit was the crown cap, which he devised in 1891. He was inspired by the increasing popularity of carbonated drinks, which were widely available in drugstores and pubs by the 1880s, but posed a packaging challenge for those who wanted to take these bubbly beverages home with them. The stoppers used in most glass bottles at the time, which were typically made of metal, cork or porcelain, did not provide a sufficient seal to keep in the carbon dioxide that created the drinks` bubbles. Or worse, if they made contact with the bottles` contents they would make the liquid toxic, and thus, undrinkable.
Painter’s simple design, which he called “crown corks,” used a metal lid lined with a thin cork disc for improving the seal and protecting the drink from the metal’s toxicity. (Today plastic is typically used instead of cork.) The caps had a corrugated edge that would be pressed around the rim of the top of a bottle, by hand or by machine. They were designed for one-time use, they were inexpensive, and they were completely leak-proof. Painter filed for a patent in 1890 and received U.S. patent no. 468,258 for the invention in 1892. Afterward, in 1894, he received U.S. patent no. 514,200 for the bottle cap lifter, now known typically as simply a “bottle opener”.
Painter founded his own manufacturing business, the Crown Cork and Seal Company, in Baltimore and set out on a campaign to convince bottlers that his cap was the right cap for them to use on their products. This was a challenge at first, because the bottles would have to be made a specific way for the crown caps to work, with a special neck tip design for the cap’s metal “teeth” to grip onto when it was pressed around the bottle. There would also need to be some way for people to press the caps onto the bottles efficiently, so that proper force was applied and so that the seal would be created correctly without breaking the bottle.
Painter provided his own answer to this problem. By 1898, he had created a foot-powered crowner device to sell to bottlers and retailers so that they could seal the bottles with his caps quickly and easily. This helped to drive acceptance of his bottle caps rather quickly around the world. By 1906, his company was opening manufacturing plants in nations such as Germany, France, Brazil and Japan. That year, Painter died a wealthy man.
In the decades that followed, the company continued to grow and prosper, and by the 1930s it was providing nearly half the world’s bottle caps. In 1958, the company moved its corporate headquarters to Philadelphia. Crown Cork & Seal has continued to innovate in packaging for food and beverages, in addition to customizing bottling equipment for the soft drink industry. With more than $6.5 billion in annual sales, it has also continued to expand internationally, with operations in more than 40 countries and employing more than 25,000. As of 2003, the operation is part of Crown Holdings, Inc., a public holding company. Its headquarters remain in Philadelphia.
The authors of the original article:
The Lemelson-MIT Program
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
School of Engineering