Pop-Top Aluminum Can

Today, it’s easy to take for granted the experience of grabbing an ice-cold cola out of the cooler at the beach or at a picnic and popping it open instantly to drink when you wish. But before Ermal Cleon Fraze came up with his 1959 invention of the pop-top aluminum can, this was impossible. Canning foods and beverages were popular by then, of course, but openers or keys were necessary to get into the containers’ contents. Fraze changed that by coming up with a way to include an opening tool directly on the can itself.

Fraze, born in Indiana in 1913 and better known as “Ernie,” grew up on a farm and moved to Ohio in the 1940s. With a small loan from his wife, Martha, he established his own company, the Reliable Tool and Manufacturing Co., in 1949 in Dayton. He was the company’s sole employee in its early days. Soon, however, he had customers in a variety of industries, making materials such as improved gun barrels for war planes that sped up bullets fired during flight. He patented this and other innovations and later earned an engineering degree at the General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich. The school is now known as Kettering University.

By 1959, Fraze had built a modestly successful enterprise with clients including General Electric, Ford, Chrysler, and even NASA, but his most lucrative invention was still to come. That year, while at a picnic with family and friends, he realized he had forgotten to bring an opener for the canned beverages at the event, so he was forced to use a car bumper to pry them open. This got him thinking about possible solutions to the problem that would eliminate the need for a can opener in the future.

One night, several months later, he was having trouble sleeping, so he thought he’d try and tire himself out by working for an hour or two on some mundane problem. The can opening incident came to mind. Others had tried to come up with a self-opening can idea, but so far, those devices remained unsuccessful. Most concepts broke or malfunctioned easily. Fraze concentrated on an idea that would use a lever attached to a rivet at the center of the top of a round can. He believed that strengthening the rivet would be the secret to success, as this would help the lever stand up to the internal pressure of the can and, if the aluminum were pre-scored with an opening, the rivet and lever would be strong enough for pulling the can open without the lever snapping off.

Fraze’s first version used a lever that pierced a hole in the can but resulted in sharp, sometimes dangerous edges. Later he created the familiar pull-tab version, which had a ring attached at the rivet for pulling, and which would come off completely to be tossed aside. He received U.S. patent No. 3,349,949 for his pull-top can design in 1963 and sold his invention to Alcoa.

The Pittsburgh Brewing Company was the first customer to use the design. Maker of Iron City Beer, the company found its sales soaring quickly after introducing the pop-top cans. Other beer and beverage companies became interested, and by 1965, nearly 75 percent of U.S. breweries were using them. In the mid-1970's, outcry from environmentalists led to the development of the can-tops we know today that use non-removable tabs, created first by the Continental Can Co.

Meanwhile, Fraze began manufacturing systems for brewers and soft-drink companies to be able to make their cans using his pull-tab design. By 1980, his company, renamed DRT Mfg. Co. (for “Dayton Reliable Tool”), was supplying can-end machinery all over the world with over $500 million in annual revenues.

Fraze died of a brain tumor at the age of 76 in 1989, and his company was sold and repurchased by its management. It remains in business today, operating out of Dayton with subsidiary operations in South Carolina and Germany.