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History of sterilisation - History of the WECK Company

From always, provisioning and more particularly the preservation of foodstuff has always been an essential need of the human being. Provisions gave him the assurance of never suffering from hunger and deprivations during the years of famine or lean cows.

Preservation method from Ancient Times to Modern Times

Long before the WECK sterilisation process takes first place in the methods of foodstuff preservation, man resorted to other methods and techniques to preserve it. Thus, in the beginning, foodstuffs were either dried in the shade or in full sunshine, either salted or in brine, or even immersed in salty, vinegarish or sugared water. A Roman poet and writer Varro, who lived from 116-27 BC, described a practice which at first glance looks like a sterilisation method but, under closer examination turns out to be a simple salting or sugar conservation of foodstuffs. According to his testimony, the Romans of his time dipped fruit in grape juice thickened by cooking or in salt solutions, all stored in earthenware jars closed with covers. The tails of fruits were also immersed in boiling pitch, then packed and stored away from light.

Birth of a great discovery

The technical starting point of sterilisation, and later the very sterilisation process, was only found in Modern Times.

Otto von Guericke, born in Magdeburg in 1602 and died in Hamburg in 1686, was a scientist, engineer and politician, who made at that time a very important discovery. His influence on sterilisation was partly indirect: he invented an electrostatic friction machine; he discovered the electric repulsion, conductivity and influence and built the first barometer.

Otto von Guericke during his experimentation with the famous Magdeburg hemispheres

But his merit lies in the fact that he was the first to recognise the materiality of the air and to determine its thermal expansion. He was the first to experiment on the vacuum by trying to measure the effect of the external pressure on an empty or low pressure chamber.

Famous is his historical experience performed before the members of Parliament in Regensburg in 1654 with the famous "Magdeburg hemispheres" that enabled him to demonstrate, to the great astonishment of the spectators, the greatness and power of atmospheric pressure. Guericke was aware of the value of his discovery for the future of technology, even if he could not guess that he had thus discovered an important step in the sterilisation process, namely the closure under pressure of sterilising jars.

Denis Papin, French scientist and physicist born in 1647 and died in 1712 in Marburg an der Lahn in all likelihood performed the second decisive step in the discovery of the sterilisation process.

Papin, who had close friendly relations with the great German philosopher and universal scholar Leibniz had gone to Marburg on the occasion of his appointment as lecturer at the university of that city. Papin, nicknamed by his contemporaries as “the man-disaster," made many experiments. Already in 1690, Papin produced the first vacuum with water steam in the famous "Papin Pan," a thick walled copper pressure pan. By equipping this pan with a safety valve, Papin started from simple observation to ascertain that a liquid cannot exceed its boiling temperature unless the lid of the container is tightly closed.

Denis Papin at work with his DigesterLa steam thus created does not stop to exercise its pressure on the liquid and moves the boiling point. For his experiments, he first used a glass container that often cracked or just burst. Papin called his pan the "Digester". Through such pans, Papin preserved also jellies "of an unrivalled taste," and even boiled meat. His experiments with the "Digester" made him more famous among his contemporaries than his other much more important scientific works and which were at the origin of new foundations of physics. At the time of the Papin experiments, the rubber ring did not exist yet and closing was provided by turpentine putty.

The Papin experiments remained only at the stage of scientific experimentation; they never found a practical application in the preservation of foodstuffs. Guericke had discovered closure in vacuum and Papin had found how to make vacuum with steam - transformation of air under the action of heat.

It is actually François Nicolas Appert who discovered that the second stage of the sterilisation process, namely how to kill all saprogenic bacteria inside and outside of foodstuff. Born in Chalons sur Champagne in 1749, he first practiced the trade of cook under the name of Franz Nikolaus at the Court of Duke Christian IV von Zweibrücken. Then, he went to establish himself as master chocolate confectioner in Paris. Around 1790, he discovered the principle of preservation through heat. He based himself for this on the experiments of the Italian monk and professor, Lazzaro Spallanzani, who lived from 1729 to 1799. The latter, as part of the eternal debate on the appearance of organisms from a dead substance, had already demonstrated in 1769 in his scientific hypothesis "without life, no life" that by closing hermetically the container and by heating long enough the liquid of an organic material, it so happened to prevent the development of microbes, to kill for sure any similar microorganism.                                       

After being appointed commander of the republican French Army by the Directoire on 26 October 1795, Emperor Napoleon 1st performed as part of his duties a remarkable action: he offered a very high reward for that time - 12,000 golden francs - to whoever would find a method for preserving foodstuffs. This was in order to expand the possibilities of supplying foodstuffs to the troops because he himself had suffered from insufficient foodstuffs during the siege of Toulon in 1793. By then, he had already realised the need to find a process that would preserve the supplies of the army and of the navy that could therefore follow the soldiers everywhere throughout their journeys. An adequate supply of troops would be ascertained once and for all, even in inhospitable areas and in winter. This award was actually won in 1810 after the French navy had tested preserves over several sea crossings, the food having been preserved by the principle of boiling. But at that time, there were only glass containers which by their fragile nature were in limited use on ships.