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Gleb Zorin

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Genius can design

An introduction to the history and success of German fuel canister, its ingenious design and modern legacy.

Modern-day 20 litre canister based on German year 1939 model.

Here I would like to introduce you to one of my favorite examples of genius design of the past — German year 1939 model fuel canister. But first of all, a quick dive into history.

It’s mid-1930’s, Nazi Germany. The military administration is facing a significant issue. In order to efficiently lead its motorized troops, army is in need of yet unseen amounts of fuel. Its supplies must be well-regulated, meantime affording flexible and easy storage. This can’t be successfully accomplished by technological means of that time. The High Command is aware of this critical strategic issue and its vital role on the outcome of Blitzkrieg, that's why in 1935 Adolf Hitler is giving a secret order to develop new type of fuel canister. Its development is undertaken in the late 1930's, by a German engineer Vinzenz Grunvogel (1905 – 1977), who at the time is the head of the development at Schwelmer Eisenwerk Muller & Co.

The first 5000 samples of the so called “Wehrmactskanister” are produced in 1936, and in year 1939, in anticipation of the war, Germans have hundreds of thousands of cans.

Now, despite more than 75 years since its invention, German canister is used successfully all around the world without practically any refinement. This proves it to be an excellent example of a successful and incredibly smart industrial design of the past, as well as, an early example of the so called “form follows function” philosophy.

So here are its unique design features:

    Old type petrol canister previously used in Germany and Britain.

  • First of all, unlike its predecessors — German and British canisters which had a triangular shape, a new canister is completely enclosed in a box. Handles do not stand out, but rather repeat the rectangular form. Because of this, canisters can be tightly stacked without the risk of damage and retain their shape even under a considerable effort.
  • The only seam connecting the die-half cans is “recessed” in with respect to the box, it does not protrude either and can not damage other cans. (At that time, Schwelmer Eisenwerk Muller & Co. collaborated with the Ambi-Budd Presswerk Co. — experts in metal stamping for car bodies. It was them, who came to the decision to stamp the two halves of the canister with their subsequent connections by welding.)
  • Three handles provide easy handling. One canister can be worn alone, as well as by two pieces in each hand. This also enables person to carry two cans and pass one to another in a bucket-brigade fashion.
  • Thanks to the air pocket, even fully filled canister floats, thus it can be thrown off a low altitude on the water. The air pocket is also used to compensate for changes in the volume of liquids because of temperature difference.
  • The presence of siphon tube, accelerates the process of emptying the canister when being flipped upside down.
  • Likewise, when canister is being opened, the siphon tube allows to equalize the pressure in the air pocket with the outside, to prevent spillage of the liquid.
  • While the flat metal sides on the old canisters are not resistant to mechanical damage, × shaped embossion on the new canister, serves as an additional element of rigidity.
  • The design of the new lid cover, unlike the screw cap, has a much higher efficiency of opening and closing. The opening and closing takes less time. Open lid can be fixed.
  • Thanks to the construction of new lid cover fluid won’t leak even under a minor damage to the rubber gasket.

American adaptation.

The immediate success of the German canister was not left unnoticed by the other participants of the war. UK, US, USSR, and Italy, just to name a few, quickly replicated original German invention. As early as in 1939, in the very beginning of the war, an American engineer Paul Pleiss had advised the US military commanders on the success of German invention. But his words were not given a proper attention, until early 40’s, when the German canister was finally sent to Camp Holabird, Maryland, where it has been changed. American version of the canister lacks its ancestors grace and functionality, it retained only recognizable box-like shape, and the size of the handle. Welding has been replaced by rolling, the lining was removed, and among other changes it now needed a wrench to be open, and a funnel to pour the liquid.

Commands of the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Italy and the Soviet Union behaved somewhat differently. They simply copied the succesful original German design, while retaining it’s functionality. Later in the USSR, cans were manufactured even from aluminium.

Despite the futile attempts of improving/upgrading the original design, their foreign counterparts didn’t survive to nowadays. Subsequently, almost everywhere, it was decided to use the original German canister from the year 1938.

It’s ironic that although the Muller & Co were the original authors of the canister, they in fact were never granted a patent. The first attempts to patent the lid locking mechanism in 1937 failed, partly perhaps because canister was a secret military order of the government. In 1952 however, Muller & Co once again fills suit for patent, and once again are refused, this time due to the fact that the patent was already successfully issued in 1944, but to the Americans.

P.S. Canisters can be easily spotted in the photographs of allegedly Hitler’s charred body near his bunker in Berlin on May 1945.