The brilliant redesign of the soda can tab.
As a child of the 1970s, I have a distinct and curious memory about the landscapes I inhabited: They glittered with glinting metal, not the gold of El Dorado but the effluvia of the consumer society. I am talking about aluminum can tabs.
If, as the saying goes, we are never more than three (or five, or 10) feet from a spider, so too did those little trinkets—a sturdy ring pull attached to a curled, wedge-shaped “tear strip,” the disposable remnant of the mechanism then used to open cans of beer or soda—rarely seem out of range: Studding the dirt dugouts of Little League, clustered near the concrete parking stops at convenience stores, sunk between seat cushions in cars, draped as a necklace around your friend’s stoner older sister. When Matthew Broderick needed to hack the payphone in War Games, his tool was right at his feet. The sand at Normandy is said to be 4 percent war shrapnel. The beaches in Florida were easily that in soda shrapnel, a fact recorded by the frustrated reactions of stooped snowbirds sweeping metal detectors. “I blew out my flip flop,” noted Jimmy Buffett, in the song that begat a lifestyle, “and stepped on a pop top.” He was not alone: In 1976, the New York Times, commenting on beach injuries at Rockaway, noted that “a large percentage were due to cuts inflicted by discarded pop tabs.”
There was an inherent problem in multipart portable consumer packaging: What to do with the sealing mechanism, once so vital and now so worthless (and dangerous), after you had opened the can? Often, it seemed, the answer was to simply chuck it. Another solution was to deposit the pulled tab in the can. While this may have been less environmentally injurious, it was not without its dangers. As an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association noted, at least seven children over a period of a little over three years had “been treated for complications of ingestion or aspiration of pull tabs from aluminum beverage cans.” One particularly pernicious problem is that aluminum often does not show up on X-rays; hence the appearance, in journals like Pediatric Emergency Care, of such startling articles as: “Swallowed Coke Can Tab: Is it Still Stuck in the Esophagus?”
Indeed, it was at a radiology conference in 1974 that a physician named Lee Rogers—who had inadvertently swallowed a can tab during a basketball game—broached the idea of the can tab hazard to the medical community. And it was this single panel at a medical conference that helped launch a revolution in the design of our aluminum cans. As described in the American Journal of Roentgenology, Rogers’ presentation triggered a media crusade, with more than 400 newspapers picking up the story. (Rogers, the AJR notes, also received negative feedback from the beverage industry, which was not keen on coming up for a costly replacement for an otherwise functional technology.) “Aluminum pull-tabs are now common elements of our environment and inevitable offenders as foreign bodies in the esophagus,” the Journal of Pediatrics sternly noted in 1978, sounding like a Red Scare-era FBI dossier.
Can tabs were an ecological disgrace and a threat to children: Is there a more potent nexus for citizen outrage? The hunt for a new and better design was on. But the irony is that the pull-tab, unveiled just more than a decade before, had been hailed as a remarkable solution to an age-old problem. As its inventor, an Ohio toolmaker named Ermal Fraze, put it, “I personally did not invent the easy-open can end. People have been working on that since 1800. What I did was develop a method of attaching a tab on the can top.”
Prior to Fraze’s invention, cans, both steel and aluminum, required a separate opener, the so-called “church key.” As Henry Petroski notes in The Evolution of Useful Things, Fraze was at a family picnic in 1956, where he found “plenty of beer but no church key,” and resorted to opening a brew via a car bumper. After an insomniac night and a spell at his workbench, Fraze had his concept. As Petroski describes, the actual engineering—getting a top that was easy enough to pull off but could withstand the force of the can’s pressure—was tricky: “Some early pull tabs were being blown off prematurely … so Fraze and other inventors came up with schemes to direct benignly the first whoosh of escaping gas away from the tab itself.”
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.