The BBC has a wonderful dive into the history of canning, tracing its origins from a technology designed to help expand and sustain the British Empire, to a miracle commodity of modern capitalism. And it almost failed before it ever got going.
Though he really stole the idea for canning from a Frenchman, Bryan Donkin is the man who developed the idea to help feed the Royal Navy. He was awarded a patent for the technology in 1813. Canned food was lauded by royalty and sailors alike — indeed, nobody had ever seen anything quite like it before. It made getting delicious British food to sailors overseas, thousands of miles from home.
But the science of canning didn't get off to a perfect start. You see, canning preserves food, and keeps it fresh and tasty only so long as what goes in there in the first place was good. A scandal in the 1850s revealed that a huge amount of the canned "beef" being sent overseas was not fit for human consumption. Much of it wasn't even beef at all (remind you of something?). The proprietor behind the operation implicated in the scandal ultimately cleaned up his act — as did the whole industry — and so canning survived long enough to become the supermarket commodity par excellence. Make sure to check out the whole BBC story. [BBC]