P38 : saving the stabbing and chopping

by Art Chantry:

meet the P-38. this little feller is one of my all time favorite design objects. in fact, i carried one on my keychain for over 20 years. eventually, the ‘blade’ broke off and yet, i still carried it on my keychain for another ten years. i LOVE this thing.

—by the way, there seems to be no existing record of who was the actual designer, the person, who came up with this design. it’s like the coke bottle and the oreo cookie, we don’t really know who designed it. we can only guess.—AC

the P-38 is the official U.S. military can opener. why it’s catalogued as ‘P-38′ is a mystery. the fact that it’s the same designation as an extremely popular airplane may be a little more than coincidence, since the name of an object in the military is extremely important tactically to it’s general success. and the P-38 is and was immensely successful.

this thing was developed by the J. W. Speaker company, a company founded in 1935. it originally manufactured tire repair equipment, radiator fronts, car mirrors, and auto lights. after the war it drifted into the manufacture of something they call “vehicular lighting solutions™”. they make fancy-ass car and truck lights, now.

during WW2, they were hired by the war effort to design and manufacture a can opener that could be included in every c-ration handed out. c-rations were military meals kits that included things like canned meals, canned fruits, canned bread and hershey choocolate bars, cigarettes and probably nylon stockings to trade for other “essential services” (just guessing, here). they also included toilet paper and (i seem to remember) condoms. of course, every c-ration needed to include a device to open the food cans – and that’s the P-38. there were millions of these little buggers whipped out and sent out with billions of meals.

it’s a brilliant can opener. it so simple and, once you get the hang of it, fast as lightning. i can open a big can of peaches in a couple seconds with one of these things. i may even be faster with one of these items than with a classic “twist handle” can opener people use in kitchens today. this thing has a rhythm that you incorporate and once you’re rocking, the jobs gets done fast. it’s a very very cool, sophisticated and absolutely sleek precise instrument.

later designs (patented by other companies) actually included a crude spoon on the small handle to actually eat the food with. however, i never much liked this late ‘improvement’. the metal was weaker and the leverage you need to use the opener made the little handle actually bend when you applied the needed pressure to open the can. that was the version issued up until the introduction of the freeze-dried pouches used by the military today.

on the other hand, when the sealed “tin” can (originally made of lead!) was perfected (by an englishman named bryan donkin in the decade between 1810 and 1820) the thing proved magnificent at preserving food for long periods of time. in fact, it was so good that that soldiers tended to die of the lead poisoning (via cans and bullets) than by ‘food’ poisoning, which always took an enormous toll. this was an enormous boon to military technology. for the first time, it allowed mobility and long-term deployment for armies that can be sustained without soldiers dying of starvation. that’s a big deal.

since the cans were made of metal (rather than glass like the already existing mason jars) it could be roughly transported without damage. the early cans were opened using whatever men could find – axes, rocks, big hard knives, shovels – basically anything a soldier had at hand. they were often shot open with guns, but more commonly it was stabbed or chopped open. they were great at preserving food, but a real bear to access. but, when you’re presented with the alternatives, the cans immediately caught on and still last until today.

so, this can opener design – elegant

it is, only came into existence around 1940. seems odd, doesn’t it? on the other hand, the safe modern can opener (the classic we know today) with the wheel and twist handle we all use at home, only dates from about 1925! we used the metal food can for over 100 years before we had a safe easy practical can opener. figure that one out, huh?

AC:another story is that it takes exactly 38 turns to open an average c-ration can. all sort soy lovely stories, none of them seem to be true….the military absolutely adores little nicknames and acronyms and colorful designations. it’s part of the culture….that was because it’s rumored (but never proven) that the original training film actually featured actor john wayne demonstrating how to us it. more legends. it’s amazing how many myths are built up around this little piece of metal….

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