History of the Pressure Cooker

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Early Development

The pressure cooker was invented by Denis Papin in 1679, who called it a "steam digester"The first version of a pressure cooker was created by Denis Papin, French physicist and mathematician (1647-1712). In 1679 he made a large cast iron vessel with a tightly fitted lid that locked. His invention raised the boiling point of water and at this higher temperature, bones softened and meat cooked in quick time. H promoted it as, "A New Digester or Engine, for softaing bones, the description of its makes and use in cookery, voayages at see, confectionary, making of drinks, chemistry, and dying, etc."

The early models were cumbersome and the "digester" required a specially-built furnace and it was somewhat dangerous to use. Regulating the steam and temperature was difficult to control so explosions were common. Papin then developed a safety valve his digester earned him membership in the Royal Society in 1680.

To demonstrate his invention, he cooked a meal for the Royal Society and King Charles II. Many of the aristocicy of the day were present, including the noted horticulturalist John Evelyn, who recorded in his diary:

"1682, 12th April: I went this afternoon with several of the Royal Society to a supper which was all dressed, both fish and flesh, in Monsieur Papin's digestors, by which the hardest bones of beef itself, and mutton, were made as soft as cheese, without water or other liquor, and with less than eight ounces of coals, producing an incredible quantity of gravy; and for close of all, a jelly made of the bones of beef, the best for clearness and good relish, and the most delicious that I had ever seen, or tasted. We eat pike and other fish bones, and all without impediment; but nothing exceeded the pigeons, which tasted just as if bak’d in a pie, all these being stewed in their own juice without any addition of water save what swam about in the Digester, as in bal neo; …. I sent a glass of jelley to my wife, to the reproach of all that the ladies ever made of the best hartshorn...."

Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, F.R.S., published 1862

In 1680, Papin introduced a revolutionary new cooking device, the marmite de Papin, or the Papin Digester. From what little we know, the Papin Digester was made from cast metal, perhaps iron, with a lid that locked in place with a screw like clamping mechanism. As the food heated in its cooking liquid, the trapped steam raised the cooking temperature to at least 15 percent higher than the boiling point of water. This very hot steam cooked the food quicker than the ordinary methods available at that time. The only problem with this new technology was the lack of understanding about regulating the steam pressure and the inability to accurately regulate the cooking temperature, leading, unfortunately, to many an exploding digester. Another major drawback was the lack of technology to produce machine-stamped pots (made from a single piece of metal). The cast or molded pots that were used would eventually crack along their seams under high levels of pressure, spewing the contents sky-high. Even though Papin never saw his concept and invention reach its full potential, he at least provided the basic notion of cooking under high pressure.


Magdeburg Hemispheres -The Magdeburg hemispheres were a pair of large copper hemispheres with mating rims. When the rims were sealed with grease and the air was pumped out, the sphere contained a vacuum and could not be pulled apart by teams of horses.

When air was again let into the enclosure, they were easily separated. He repeated this demonstration in 1663 at the court of Friedrich Wilhelm I of Brandenburg in Berlin, using 24 horses. With his experiments Guericke disproved the hypothesis of "horror vacui", that nature abhors a vacuum, which for centuries was a problem for philosophers and scientists.

Even though we can't feel it, air is constantly pressing down on us with a tremendous force--14.7 lbs. per square inch (100,000 newtons per square meters), to be exact! This was graphically demonstrated in 1654 when Otto von Gueicke, Burgmeister of the town of Magdeburg, Germany used a vacuum pump to remove almost all of the air from the space between two half-meter diameter hemispheres. The air pressure holding them together was so strong that two teams of horses couldn't pull them apart; when air was let back in, the hemispheres fell apart easily.

In 1654 Otto von Guericke gave the citizens of Magdeburg a remarkable lesson in the force of the atmosphere. He machined two hollow hemispheres, twenty inches in diameter, so they fit snuggly into a sealed sphere. He pumped the air out of it. Then he put sixteen horses, eight on each side, to the task of pulling the halves apart. The horses couldn't, of course. It would've taken a force of over two tons to separate the halves. ...

After learning about Guericke's pump through Schott's book, Robert Boyle worked with Robert Hooke to design and build an improved air pump. From this, through various experiments, they formulated what is called Boyle's law, which states that the volume of a body of an ideal gas is inversely proportional to its pressure. Soon the ideal gas law was formulated.


Based on these concepts, in 1679, an associate of Boyle's named Denis Papin built a bone digester, which is a closed vessel with a tightly fitting lid that confines steam until a high pressure is generated. Later designs implemented a steam release valve to keep the machine from exploding. By watching the valve rhythmically move up and down, Papin conceived of the idea of a piston and cylinder engine. He did not, however, follow through with his design. Nevertheless, in 1697, based on Papin's designs, engineer Thomas Savery built the first commercial steam engine

Magdeburg hemispheres

The Magdeburg hemispheres were a pair of large copper hemispheres with mating rims. When the rims were sealed with grease and the air was pumped out, the sphere contained a vacuum and could not be pulled apart by teams of horses. The Magdeburg hemispheres were designed by German scientist Otto von Guericke in 1650 to demonstrate the air pump he had invented and the concept of air pressure. The first artificial vacuum had been produced a few years earlier by Evangelista Torricelli, and had inspired von Guericke to design the world's first vacuum pump, which consisted of a piston and cylinder with one-way flap valves. To power the machine, several people would turn a crank arm connected to the vacuum pump.


The Magdeburg hemispheres, a little over a foot (30 cm) in diameter, were designed to demonstrate the vacuum pump that von Guericke had invented. When the air was sucked out from inside them, they were held firmly together by the air pressure of the surrounding atmosphere.


Guericke's demonstration was presented on 8 May 1654 to the Reichstag and the Emperor Ferdinand III in 1654 in Regensburg, where 30 horses, in two teams of 15, could not separate the hemispheres until the vacuum was released. In 1656 he repeated the demonstration with 16 horses (2 teams of 8) in his hometown of Magdeburg, where he was mayor. In 1657, Gaspar Schott was the first to describe the experiment in print in his Mechanica Hydraulico-Pneumatica. In 1663 (or according to some sources in 1661) the demonstration was given in Berlin before Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg) with 24 horses.

The original hemispheres are maintained by the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Many copies of them (usually smaller) have been made to illustrate the principle of air pressure to students. Re-enactments of von Guerike's 1654 experiment are performed in locations around the world by the Otto von Guericke Society. The experiment has been commemorated on at least two German stamps.


After learning about Guericke's pump through Schott's book, Robert Boyle worked with Robert Hooke to design and build an improved air pump. From this, through various experiments, they formulated what is called Boyle's law, which states that the volume of a body of an ideal gas is inversely proportional to its pressure. Soon the ideal gas law was formulated.

Based on these concepts, in 1679, an associate of Boyle's named Denis Papin built a bone digester, which is a closed vessel with a tightly fitting lid that confines steam until a high pressure is generated. Later designs implemented a steam release valve to keep the machine from exploding. By watching the valve rhythmically move up and down, Papin conceived of the idea of a piston and cylinder engine. He did not, however, follow through with his design. Nevertheless, in 1697, based on Papin's designs, engineer Thomas Savery built the first commercial steam engine.



History of pressure cooking

In 1679, the French mathematician and physicist Denis Papin invented the first pressure cooker or steam digester as he called it. The story is whilst he was presenting his new steam digester to the Royal Society it exploded, leading him to invent the safety valve. Three years later he represented it to the Royal society and gained positive reviews.

The pressure cooker title was first seen in print in 1915. In 1927, the first pressure cookers were sold in Germany and in 1939 the world’s first commercial pressure cooker made by National Presto Industries was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair.

In these early days, there are accounts of people thinking pressure cookers were the results of witchcraft because of their continued hissing.

Pressure cookers through time

Cast iron pressure cooker, c1860

Although small domestic pressure cookers were not developed until the 19th century, a large version was invented by Denis Papin in 1679.

Cast iron pressure cooker, c1860

Pentecon pressure cooker 1927

by Joseph Sankey and Sons of Bilston 1927

Pentecon pressure cooker 1927

L'auto Thermus Pressure Cooker, c1930

Pressure cookers have to be very strong to cope with high pressure up to 3 bar

L'auto Thermus Pressure Cooker, c1930

Welbank Boilerette, c1935

Boilerettes were widly used until the 1950s. It is a pressurised water jacket, which keeps the temperature inside the container a few degrees above 100°C (212°F) Cooking is only slightly quicker than in an ordinary saucepan, but it prevents food sticking or burning.

Welbank Boilerette, c1935

Fogacci New Boilerette, 1983

Fogacci New Boilerette, 1983

America, just on the verge of entering World War II, was busy converting all civilian manufacturing facilities to war production. While this temporarily ended the manufacture of pressure cookers for consumer use, production of commercial pressure canners continued during this period in order to meet the growing need to feed Gls overseas.

By the late 1940s, with peace in Europe and the Pacific, the consumer pressure-cooker market took off. Almost overnight there were eleven different manufacturers offering eighty-five different pressure saucepans (as they were called). Prices dropped and quality suffered as unscrupulous manufacturers entered the market to capitalize on the growing demand. While consumers were well aware of the benefits of using a pressure cooker for preparing meals-cooking in just one-third of the time, preserving vitamin and mineral content of food, and saving both food flavor and color- they also grew more skeptical with the increasing number of horror stories about exploding and rupturing units. Little by little, companies began to drop out of the category, until finally only those truly dedicated to the development of safe, foolproof units remained.

While pressure cookers revolutionized how the average homemaker was able to cook in the years following World War II, other advances in food preparation would soon begin to overshadow their convenience. With the advent of products like frozen entrees and prepared foods in the postwar years, America's eating habits began to change dramatically. Consumers were seeking an even higher level of convenience than that afforded by the pressure cooker, and it began to fall out of favor. It would not be until the late 1960s and early 1970s, which saw an increased awareness of healthy eating, that pressure cookers would begin to once again gain in popularity.

As we entered the 1990s, many baby boomers that had never used a pressure cooker began to discover the benefits of pressure-cooker cooking

The Beginnings of Canning

The canning process is a product of the Napoleonic wars. Malnutrition was rampant among the 18th century French armed forces and as Napoleon prepared for his Russian campaign, he needed a better means to provide food for his troops, so he offered a prize of twelve thousand francs to someone that could find a way to preserve food.

The process was invented in France in 1795 by Nicholas Appert, a Parisian candy maker won the prize of 12,000 francs offered by Napoleon for a way to prevent military food supplies from spoiling. Appert, called his method "appertisation" , and he was the forerunner of canning as we know it today. Appert placed fresh products (meat, vegetables) in wide-mouthed glass jars which were then heated in a boiling water bath. Finally, the jars were hermetically sealed with corks.

Although the causes of food spoilage were unknown at the time, Appert was an astute experimenter and observer. Noting that wine store in airtight bottles didn't spoil, he filled wide-mouth glass bottles with meats and vegetables, carefully corked them and sealed them with pitch, and  then heated them in boiling water. By 1804, Appert opened his first vacuum-packing plant. His nephew, Raymond Chevallier-Appert improved upon the design by inventing (and patenting) an early version of the pressure canner to vacuum seal foods in clean jars, leading to the eventual development of the canning industry.

The canning process was so important that it was a French military secret, but it soon leaked across the English Channel. In 1810 Peter Durance, an Englishman, patented the use of metal containers for canning,which was perfected by Bryan Dorkin and John Hall, who set up the first commercial canning factory in England in 1813. By the next year others had opened factories. The troops that faced off at Waterloo had canned rations, and soon, these "tinned" foods were used to feed the British army and navy. Thomas Kensett, who emigrated to the United States, established the first U.S. canning facility for oysters, meats, fruits and vegetables in New York in 1812. More than 50 years later, Louis Pasteur provided the explanation for canning's effectiveness when he was able to demonstrate that the growth of microorganisms is the cause of food spoilage.

Early Use in the US

At a time when automatic cooking utensils were unheard of, Holcomb & Hoke Manufacturing Company of Indianapolis, Indiana, came up with a self-regulating aluminum cooker in 1896. Their "Thermo-Chef" pressure cooker featured a sections for food, a gas burner and thermostat. It was mounted on legs and was designed by bolted to the floor.

Thinking they had the world by the tail, Holcomb & Hoke manufactured thousands for distribution to department stores all across the country, but at $76.85, the cookers didn’t sell. The product was too expensive for the average American working family, and those who could afford it didn’t need it because they had domestic help to do the cooking. Needless to say, neglecting to understand the purchasing habits of the target market proved to be an expensive oversight.

Pressure Canners for Home Use

An example of a large die cast aluminum pressure canner for home use made by the National In the USA the first pressure cooker patents were granted in 1902. Early commercial pressure cookers were huge industrial-size pressure vessels. In 1905 they were known as "canner retorts," and were primarily used by commercial canneries. Soon fifty gallon capacity pressure pots for hotel and institutional use were developed. Next, thirty-gallon canners for hotel were manufactured by National Presto, then called Northwestern Iron and Steel Works. for pressure cooking meals rather than canned goods. Soon thereafter, the ten-gallon models, more suitable for home canning, were also developed.



Light weight aluminum was used in manufacturing large-size pressure canners for home use to promote home canning as a means of preserving food in the days before refrigeration. In 1917, the United States Department of Agriculture determined that pressure canning was the only safe method of canning low-acid foods without risking food poisoning. Pressure canners were in widespread use since refrigeration was mostly non-existent at that time and canning was the main method of preserving food.

First Pressure Cookers

In 1915 the term "pressure cooker" first appeared in print and National Presto installed an aluminum foundry for the specific purpose of manufacturing large-size pressure canners for home use and thrifty housewives everywhere wanted one.

In1930, the Exhaust Cooker, a steam pressure cooker made a brief appearance, using your car's exhaust heat to cooked up a 'nice' dinner. The sales pitch was, "After all, motor tours are much more pleasant when one is assured of a well-prepared meal at the end of the trip.”




In 1938 Alfred Vischler patented his Flex-Seal Speed Cooker and introduced it at a New York city trade show, touting it as the very first pressure saucepan for preparing meals rather than canning. (Believe it or not people are still trying to use these old relics) Vischler's idea was so successful that it wasn't long before other manufacturers in America and Europe were making many brands of pressure cookers to keep up with the growing popularity,

As people migrated from the country, and a farming lifestyle, to the cities and suburban living they wanted all the comfort foods that mom made in the big pressure canner at home. Housewives wanted a smaller, more convenience size so the new "pressure saucepan"was developed. Smaller than the big farm-sized canning kettles, the new, smaller aluminum pressure cookers were perfect for the smaller size of new families and the modern kitchen of the time.

War Time Popularity

Victory Gardens

Home Canning blossomed during WWII when food shortages lead to rationing.

A Burpee Presser Canner from the WW II era

Many odd canner designs came and went when they proved to be unsafe.

In 1941,at the start of WWII, smaller, cast aluminum pressure cookers enjoyed widespread popularity in most American homes. The production of pressure cookers by eleven major manufacturers was tightly regulated during World War II, as aluminum was needed for the war effort, and it wasn't long before the manufacturing of aluminum pressure cookers came to a halt.

    During the war years larger canners made of carbon steel (not the stainless kind), enamaled steel and cast iron continued to manufactured under approval of the War Production Board for the extremely important victory gardens. Food and fuel shortages forced a return to home canning, and several government programs supported the home front, and even Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden on the front lawn of the White House.

    Read more about vintage and used pressure cookers and safety.

    "In 1942, about 5.5 million gardeners participated in the war garden effort, making seed package sales rise 300%. The USDA estimated over 20 million garden plots were planted with an estimated 9-10 million pounds of fruit and vegetables grown a year, 44 percent of the fresh vegetables in the United States. (Bassett 1981) In 1943, American families bought 315,000 pressure cookers for canning vegetables up from 66,000 in 1942 (Wessels)."

Cooks held onto their prewar pressure cookers and often several families shared a single cooker. In a time when fuel and food were rationed and shortages were commonplace, the pressure cooker was fast becoming a necessity rather than a mere convenience. In bulletin to homemakers, the government promoted the formation of "canning circles" to best utilize scarce resources, and urged people who owned pressure canners to share them with other families.Warning that "only a few canners will be available for purchase this year," it was suggested that six or more families share each cooker.

Across the Atlantic people who already owned pressure cookers were able to conserve limited fuel, and make meat scraps and bones edible.

In 1943 Presto made the following statement in Life magazine:

      "The manufacturing facilities of the makers of PRESTO COOKERS are now devoted to war production. Once victory is won – there will be Presto Cookers for everybody. Until then, if you own one, share it, won’t you? It’s a good neighbor policy."


The End of the Beginning

By 1945, with the war ending, the pent-up demand for pressure cookers was tremendous. The demand exceeding the supply and homemakers everywhere put their names on waiting lists. In following years there were 85 US manufacturers trying to convert from war products to making pressure cookers and canners, but what they DIDN'T know about pressure cookery brought about the decline and fall of pressure cooking in America.

Competition was steep, and manufacturers tried to cut costs by producing cheaper, poor quality pressure cookers. Production methods favored quantity rather than quality and these inferior products flooded the market from the late 40's through 50's.

Busy cooks who had replied on their pre-war cookers rushed to buy new ones. New families were in the making and the newly married wives bought pressure cookers so they could cook the same recipes that mom made. Cooks suddenly found exploding pressure bombs in their kitchens and as the word spread about these flawed pressure cooker, people became reluctant to use them. The frequency of pressure cooker accidents founded the familiar expression of "...in a pressure cooker", implying disaster is imminent.

The old horror stories still abound, just as those aged, antique, and vintage pressure cookers still do. A great many of those dangerous old pressure cookers are still around, and are often sold at places such as EBAY, garage sales, and estate sales, as well as passed on from generation to generation as family keepsakes. Unfortunately the problems also persist to this day, as people find these poorly manufactured pressure cookers in the attics and basements of their grandmothers and great aunts and still try to use them.

Decline and Fall

One by one manufacturers went out of business as cooks stopped using the post war pressure cookers. Only a few manufacturers could afford to stay in business as sales plummeted. The few diehard pressure cooker users were demanding a better quality pressure cooker, but manufacturers, burdened with overstocked warehouses, were slow to comply with consumer demands. When the new and improved models finally came on the market it was too little, too late and pressure cookery began a steady decline.

Marked with a bad reputation, pressure cooker usage continued to decline, and coupled with newer, modern cooking methods such as the arrival of the microwave oven, the art of pressure cookery nearly disappeared in the US. In the 70's there was a brief resurgence in pressure cooker popularity with many younger cooks drawn to a rural, back-to-nature lifestyle.

After the war, a few cookbooks devoted to pressure cookery were published. Another wave of recipes for pressure cooking appeared with the 1970ish interest in wholefoods. The high temperatures possible with steam pressure make it easier to cook soybeans and some other ingredients associated with wholefood/vegetarian cooking.

European Style

cooker_2294.jpgWhile American cooks were storing their pressure cookers down in the basement, Europeans were still happily using their old reliable pre-war cookers and never had the problems of their American counterparts. By the 1950's European and Asian manufacturers were reaping the benefits of the War Reparations Act. Capital was invested for research and development to produce new designs and improved safety features that lead to the modern pressure cookers of today.

European and Asian manufacturers developed new valve systems, redundant safety features and updated pressure release methods. American manufacturers have again been slow to adapt the new designs and the jiggle top remains the US standard. In the early 90's European manufacturers cracked the American market, importing the newest models and bragging about their new safety features, quiet operation and the scorch-resistant layered bases. American cooks are once again discovering the benefits of pressure cookery with fast, economical, efficient and nutritious meals that appeal to busy and health conscious American consumers.

Millions of cooks in Europe and Asia continue to rely heavily on pressure cookers. In countries where the cost of fuel, natural gas, propane, and electricity is very high, pressure cookers are an economic necessity in every home. India, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany manufacture several brands of pressure cookers that are exported to the US.

Pressure Cookers Today

pc4.jpgNew pressure cookers, with their multiple safety features and improved vent systems, are once more catching on in the US market. Busy cooks with hectic schedules, demanding jobs, an active family and little spare time are looking for fast, economical ways for preparing home-cooked, nutritious meals. TV ads market overpriced pressure cookers with fancy new names, touting the "latest, greatest, new invention" to cooks who would never have considered buying a pressure cooker. Wide spread advertising has brought with it a popular resurgence of interest in pressure cookery, and this old-fashioned cooking method is suddenly new again.



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