More often than not, the best products in life are overlooked. The IKEA blue bag, the Bic lighter, the Rubik’s cube, the frozen pizza. Industrial designers and engineers spent countless hours dialling in these products, ensuring they’re absolutely perfect. They’re basically so perfect that they blend seamlessly into our lives, almost invisibly serving their intended functions. Like many ingenious designs throughout history, many came from wartime efforts, when worldwide resources were limited and successful design execution was of critical importance.
Let’s look at one of these truly important historic carry products, the Jerrycan. Originally called “Wehrmacht-Einheitskanister” (German for “armed forces unit canister”) it was developed in Germany in the 1930’s for military use. Wars are won and lost with resources. One of the most important resources being fuel. That fuel must be efficiently stored and transported to aide the soldiers and war machines on the front lines. No fuel and the tanks don’t roll. No tanks and the war is lost.
In order to truly appreciate the Jerrycan (a nickname coined by US forces, as “Jerry” was a slang term for Germans), we need to first look at the Allied Forces 4-gallon fuel canisters. To put it simply, they were failures. They were made of several panels of thin (easily-punctured) flat mild-steel plates, which were welded together part by part (costly and time-consuming). They would often leak around these long welded lines, and these fuel leaks would often cause vehicle fires…clearly not ideal. To access the liquid contents, you needed a wrench to remove the cap, which was a separate piece.
Plus you’d need a funnel to fill it and a spout to pour it. That’s four required parts, not including the can itself. Not very efficient. Among all these issues, the handle was a single strip of bent steel, which wasn’t comfortable for a soldier to carry over distances (while dodging bullets and land mines). So poorly designed and manufactured, most were only able to be used once; they were then being modified for stoves or filled with soil and used as makeshift sandbags.
They were aptly nicknamed “flimsies” (a single can would be called a “flimsy”).
The Germans on the other hand created a carry masterpiece. The 20-liter/5.3-gallon (that’s 24.5% more volume than the Allied version) was radically different and superior in many ways.
First, it had three comfortable rounded stamped handles. This allowed the cans to be passed down the line from one soldier to the next to the next in bucket-brigade fashion, as one soldier would use the far-sided handle to hand over the exposed free handle on the other far side, rapidly and easily exchanging hands down the line.
One soldier could use the single center handle to comfortably carry a single can with each hand, while maintaining their balance walking over the battlefield’s rough terrain.
If the soldier was strong, they could grab the two edge handles of two cans that were next to each other with one hand. Thus, allowing them to carry four filled Jerrycans at once. If they weren’t so buff, they could still carry four empty cans without any problem. Full or empty, it would have been impossible for one soldier to carry four flimsies – the Jerrycan allowed for both.
Additionally, the way the Jerrycans were constructed was from two pieces of stamped steel which interlocked together, requiring only one weld around the “equator”. There was even a plastic liner sandwiched in between these two parts for added security. Thus, preventing leaks and making the overall manufacturing process cheaper, easier and faster.
As part of the stamping process, they added in ridges or indentations, which increased the structural rigidity of the cans and allowed for expansion and contraction of the liquids during fluctuations in temperature. Genius.
Where the Allied version was 5 parts total, the Jerrycan was one complete unit, requiring no tools to access the contents. The cam-lever lid mechanism was integrated, so it couldn’t be misplaced. Even the aluminium ring pin (used to keep the lid mechanism locked with an airtight seal) was integrated with a welded detent, so it couldn’t be fully removed (or lost), as finding this tiny part out in the field would be quite difficult.
As an added bonus, differently coloured cans made it easy for soldiers to rapidly identify the contents (fuel vs oil vs water, etc). Lastly, aesthetically speaking, the Jerrycan looks incredible – especially when sitting next to one of the poorly-built flimsies. Maybe that counts for some kind of morale boost? Probably not.
The Jerrycan was such a superior product that Allied Forces eventually recognised the incredible design and then reverse engineered the canister for their own use, successfully producing countless units to aid in their wartime efforts. Though WWII has long since passed, the Jerrycan is still used (and even produced by the tens of thousands) today by organisations like the United Nations and NATO.