In the mid-‘70s, when I was a care-free pseudo-hippy in my early 20s, I spent several months in the pretty little Andean town of Banos, Ecuador.
One of my principal activities was going for day-long walks in the densely forested hills around town.
Often I would end up at a clean, cold, mountainside waterfall somewhere, where I could wash off the sweat and heat, and eat my traditional trekking lunch – some peelable fruit, a bread roll, a canteen of water and a can of tuna.
A prized tool that went along with me on these junkets was the pocket-sized, manual can opener I had picked up for a nickel or so at some market stall in Quito.
Only about four centimetres long, it was an ingenious little machine.
It had a cutting face that folded flat against the handle, so it could be stored as a flat stick in your pocket.
To open a can, you pulled out the cutting face, and inserted the rim of the can into a small notch on the handle.
You then just used lever action, pushing down on the cutting piece and pulling up on the handle, to make little cuts all around the circumference of the lid.
I soon became very deft with this little device, and would often startle whatever friend I was hiking with by how quickly I could make it do its business.
Furthermore, I found a whole range of other uses for it.
The thin, flat bottom of the blade made a useful ersatz screwdriver; the handle was also useful for digging out the mud from the treads of your hiking boots; you could cut thread and even thin wire with the cutting face.
I used to tell my fellow pseudo-hippies it was the best five-cent investment I ever made.
Like so many of my investments, big or small, however, I eventually lost it.
It ended up in the junk drawer in of one of my many apartments over the years, and, I suspect, came to an ignominious end in a garbage bag in a dumpster.
I had forgotten all about this little machine until earlier this week, when I stumbled across a picture of it on the internet.
It turns out that, pseudo-hippy though I may have been, I was using a US Army device – and using it, without knowing it, for a lot of things the GIs used it for.
From the Second World War until the late 1980s, when the US army stopped using cans for the field rations for its troops, pretty much every US soldier had one of these little babies on the chain around his neck, right next to his dog tags.
The official US Army name for the thing is pristine Pentagonese: “opener, can, hand, folding, type I.”
US servicemen, I learned, typically called it the P38, or the John Wayne.
The John Wayne designation apparently comes from the fact that John Wayne was once featured in a training film showing how to use the opener.
The P38 designation is a little more mysterious.
Some sources claim it was named, perhaps ironically, after the P38 Lightning fighter plane of the Second World War.
The fact that there was also a slightly larger version of the opener, called the P51 (like the P51 Mustang fighter) lends some credence to this myth.
On the other hand, other sources point out that the P38 is actually 38 millimetres long, and the P51 is 51 millimetres, so maybe the numbers derive simply from their respective measurements.
Whatever its name, it is a lovely piece of simple engineering: portable, durable, intuitive to use, and easy and cheap to manufacture in large quantities.
The US patent on this device (patent 2,413,528, filed March 16, 1945, awarded December 31, 1946) was originally owned by a John W. Speaker, president of the J.W. Speaker Corporation – which still exists to this day, though as a manufacturer of lighting products, not can openers.
During the Second World War, J.W. Speaker and two other manufacturing firms (the other two probably operating under a licensing agreement) were involved in the mass production of these little openers.
Under the old US patent laws (which set the start term of your patent protection as 17 years from the date it was awarded), the J.W. Speaker patent would have expired in December of 1963, after which any number of companies could have (and most certainly did) produce the devices – almost all of them, I suspect, for the US military.
I cannot claim – such is the insouciance of youth – that I was ever observant enough to check the brand name on my particular unit to know if it was a J.W. Speaker original, or a knock-off.
But it hardly matters: My little opener, whatever its brand, would have been manufactured to the rigorous specifications of the all-mighty American Army.
These days, as I have said, the synthetics-packaged Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) have replaced the canned C-Rations that persisted in service through the Vietnam War, so the P38 is not is such a common item, anymore.
As it turns out, however, it is still doing creditable, unheralded service in disaster relief operations, such as in New Orleans, where donated canned goods are still commonly used.
The little P38 has been going about its inconspicuous, un-regarded little business for more than 60 years now.
It doesn’t look like much, but it is a classic example of a good, useful, life-enhancing (and even life-saving) invention – and it is so simple and intuitive that even a 20-something pseudo-hippy can operate it.
I miss my little P38, now.
It looks like I might be able to find one for about $1.50 on e-Bay.
That’s a lot more than the nickel I spent back in 1977, but probably still a good investment.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.