Crown cap

Irish drunk becomes a disciplined inventor

William Painter (Triadelphia, Maryland, November 20, 1838 – Baltimore, July 15, 1906)

'A crown cap', says the Fat Van Dale, 'is a metal bottle cap with slits all around, making it reminiscent of a crown.' The lid is dirt cheap, can easily be placed on a bottle and removed again by machine, it seals a bottle perfectly so that the carbon dioxide cannot escape and the used cap can be reprocessed without any problems.

But the thing was not born so completely perfect. In the United States alone, there were 150 crazy and less crazy closures, when a certain William Painter came up with a 151st version more than a hundred years ago. An invincible example, as it turned out later.

Painter was of Irish descent and had led a debauched life when he met his future wife Harriet in the United States. She was strictly religious and felt called to set William on the right path.

After their marriage in 1880, she encouraged him to work purposefully and to think commercially, to make something of his life.

The drunk Irishman became a hard-working inventor, who ten years later had 85 patents to his name. The majority had immediately died a silent death, such as a device for detecting counterfeit coins, a device for cutting off the tops of boiled eggs or a machine for rinsing condoms. Yet Painter was not a poor man or a failed genius. No, he had made good money with a soft rubber valve, commonly used for installations that drained urban cesspools and private latrines. At that time, sewerage was not yet widespread.

Furthermore, from 1885 onwards he had great success with a rubber disk that had to be pressed into the bottle neck to seal it.

But he remained dissatisfied - a trait of many inventors - and he spent years thinking of one closure after another until, while on holiday in Rhode Island in 1891, he designed the modern bottle cap.

The new metal lid had a thin cork pad inside. As a result, the contents of the bottle did not come into contact with the metal, so the taste was not affected. Next, the number of teeth was crucial.

Bottle caps with more or less than 21 squeezes showed major defects. Even the best computers have not been able to improve this in recent decades. 21 was and remains the magic number. And finally, the material for the lids was cheap.

It was also nice for a businessman that they had to be thrown away after use, because you always needed new caps. The bottle cap is undoubtedly the first disposable item in history.

Afterwards, Painter also had to get the bottle manufacturers on his side, because the number of different types of bottle necks and closures was countless. In 1898 he introduced a foot-operated machine with which he could cap 24 bottles per minute.

Four years later, that machine could close 100 bottles per minute, making Painter's closure the standard. To convince unbelieving brewers and bottlers of his miracle closure, he occasionally had a load of beer crates shipped to South America and brought back again.

In this way, the gentlemen could ensure the lasting quality of their product. The stunt of an American businessman.

Painter was instantly wealthy and bought one of the most beautiful houses in Baltimore, a building that is still considered one of the city's landmarks today. When he died of pneumonia in 1906, his company had branches in England, Germany, France, Brazil and Japan. Painters Crown Cork & Seal still exists as one of the world's largest manufacturers of bottling equipment, beverage cans, aerosol cans and of course bottle caps. The multinational has 223 factories in 49 countries. An Antwerp businessman bought the patent for Belgium in 1919 and established a bottle cap factory in Deurne, near Antwerp. Since 2002, only aerosol cans and food cans have been manufactured.

The Irish playwright and drinking brother Brendan Behan once wrote a paean to his fellow countryman's extraordinary invention: "No existence is like that of a bottle cap," he said, "you're always on top and you always have a full bottle underneath you."

(See also: safety razor)