As legend has it, one day in 1959, Ermal Fraze decided to have a picnic. Only there was a small problem. All of his guests had forgotten to bring their can openers, generally referred to as church keys. So, as a result, Fraze spent most of the afternoon on the back bumper of his car punching holes in these cans so people could drink from them and gradually came to the conclusion, “There needs to be something better around than this.”
After a sleepless night of pondering this problem, Fraze came up with what became known as the integral rivet. The development of this rivet, as it turned out, would be the key technology breakthrough that enabled the pull-tab to come into existence. It solved the problem of how to attach the opening device to a can end by making the rivet out of the lid itself.
Fraze sold the rights to his invention to Alcoa, and they introduced the first tabs in 1962. Together, with the introduction of the aluminum can circa 1960, as well as the aluminum end, this invention of the pull-tab, also referred to as the “ring pull,” would go on to revolutionize the industry.
“With the development of this easy-open end, the metal beverage can became the package of choice for both men and women,” explains Brian Fields, director, Crown Packaging Technology. “Even when they were flat tops they were easier to open and then when the pull-tab came along it became a much more accessible consumer device.”
The first pull-tab ends were put on Pittsburgh Brewing Co.’s Iron City Cans 50 years ago, in March 1962.
The combined introduction of the aluminum cans, whose body was less susceptible to corrosion than steel was, and the pull-tab, proved a revolutionary turn of events in the early sixties for the beer and soft drink segments of the beverage business. “Basically the soft drink and the beer industry, as far as canning is concerned, just took off from that point,” says Fields. “And from 1962 to probably 1980, it was the glory years of the beverage canning industry. Massive growth, factories opening up all over the place.”
From this early start, the end continued to develop and evolve over time, improving its design and performance until it became the product that we have today. According to Fields, the fact that it became the industry standard is a testament to the effort put in in those days by Crown, American and Continental Can. “They continue to evolve the end, take something that was introduced in 1962 and within two years developing it into something that was fully acceptable to the consumer, which then converted pretty well the whole industry by 1967.”
The next evolution of the pull-tab would come in the ’70’s when the stay-on tab designed by Daniel Cudzik of Reynolds Metals Co. was developed, and conscientious consumers quickly moved to the new technology. By 1977, most of the industry had converted to the stay-on tab, which was called the Ecology End.
“It was far simpler to open then the pull-tab,” says Mike Dunleavy, Vice President Corporate Affairs and Public Relations, Crown Beverage Packaging North America. “It’s also easier to recycle because it all recycles as a single package. So it has a lot of advantages. And then over the years, the tab has been customized with everything from laser-engraving to colors to attract consumer attention. And the process of opening the cans has become easier and easier as we have improved the technology of scoring the tab areas. We are always looking for the things to make the products simpler and more usable for the consumer.”