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Deutsches Technikmuseum - August

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Exhibit of the Month August 2018

Photo: Both cans are rectangular, around 50 centimetres high, 35 centimetres long and 15 centimetres wide. The top of each can has handles and a spout that can be closed up with a catch fastener or a screw cap, respectively.

The "Canisters of the Germans": Everyday goods with an exciting history of development © SDTB / Photo: C. Kirchner

Jerry cans, 1943

Two gas cans provide a good example of how something special can be hidden within the everyday.

Millions of these typical 20-litre containers are to this day used for transporting fuel, water and other liquids. The English name “jerry can” refers to its German origins, "Jerry" being wartime slang for Germans. The two examples on display, however, are not German made. The can on the right is from the USA and the one on the left from Great Britain. The "W↑D" on the side stands for the British War Department.

These practical metal cans, which were originally developed for the Wehrmacht in the 1930s, were used by the millions during the German blitzkrieg. The war would have simply been impossible without liquid fuels. For the Allied Armies this last link in the supply chain was missing: reliable gas cans.

Black and white Photo: A group of soldiers is standing in front of a long railway train consisting of tank cars. Much like one might see at a gas station, they are using a hose coming out of a tank car to fill the many gas cans in front of them.

German Wehrmacht soldiers transferring fuel from a railway tank car into "Wehrmacht-Einheitskanister" (jerry cans), Soviet Union 1941. © Bundesarchiv / Photo: Heinz Fremke / CC-BY-SA 3.0

From Berlin out into the world

The jerry can’s journey out into the world began in Berlin. The definitive form of the can was developed by Ambi-Budd Presswerk in Berlin-Johannisthal in 1936. In 1939 one of the company’s senior managers took three cans and the construction plans on a venturesome journey to India and, in 1940, continued on to the USA.

Shortly thereafter he visited Great Britain as well, where a decision was taken to produce an almost identical copy of the German can. The USA ended up producing a slightly modified version that included a screw cap but retained the basic form. Further adaptations were produced in Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union.

By the end of World War II the jerry can had spread around the world. This everyday commodity remains the symbol of a petroleum-based transport system to this day.