The Pressure Cooker was Not an Instant Success

Denis Pepin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin's "Digester of Bones," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin’s “Digester of Bones,” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Jennifer Egloff

“What’s in your Pot tonight?”

This question is often asked on Facebook pages dedicated to the Instant Pot and other electronic pressure cookers.  While many people know that the pressure cooker existed prior to becoming trendy during the past few years, it may come as a surprise to learn that it was invented in the 1670s by a man named Denis Papin.  Although Papin is not a household name or textbook staple like his colleagues Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, or Isaac Newton, he was a noteworthy member of the European knowledge community during the second half of the seventeenth century. (For more on Pepin and his connections to early modern scientists, technicians, machine-makers, natural scientists, and philosophers, see Thony Christie’s super post at The Renaissance Mathematicus!)

Born in Blois, France in 1647 he studied medicine and utilized patronage connections with Marie Charron, the wife of Louis XIV’s minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in order to receive a position assisting the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens with physical and chemical experiments at the Louvre in 1673.  In 1675, Papin relocated to London—equipped with a letter of introduction from Huygens—where he soon began assisting Boyle with his air pump experiments.  While doing so, Papin designed his pressure cooker, which was a sealed container, in which water could be heated to create internal pressure that was many times greater than that of the earth’s atmosphere.  By experimenting on food, Papin was applying the principles of temperature, pressure, and volume to practical problems, while simultaneously formulating additional theoretical principles from his observations. 

After having demonstrated his device to the Royal Society, Papin published an account called A New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones in 1681.  His text contained a description of the experiments he did with his Digester, and how it radically decreased the time required to cook meat, soften bones, ferment wine, prepare confections, dyes, and chemicals, and even incubate eggs.  He also included an account of the cost to build his engine, and provided some cost-benefit analysis, highlighting the potential for large profits. 

Papin especially highlighted how valuable his device would be at sea, both logistically—because one could cook with sea water in it—and with regards to nutrition.  Scurvy, which has the symptoms of weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin problems, was a habitual problem for early modern English mariners.  While medical professionals now understand that scurvy is caused by a deficiency of ascorbic acid, also referred to as vitamin C, during the seventeenth century there were many competing theories about the causes.

Calling upon his medical training, Papin claimed that mariners’ high instances of developing scurvy was related to overconsumption of salted meat, which was a staple of mariners’ diets.  Papin considered his Digester’s ability to quickly and easily turn bones—which might have otherwise been discarded—into nutritious and flavorful jellies to be one of its most significant applications.  He claimed, “that Gellies being made of volatile parts, and easie to be digested, would be apt to correct that defect of the salt meat.”[1]  Papin thought that jellies would be nutritious for people on land as well, and he focused on jellies when making his financial arguments about the profitability of his Digester.

Although some of his contemporaries, including the diarist John Evelyn, enjoyed his jellies, Papin made it clear in his 1687 text, A Continuation of the New Digester of Bones, in which he detailed additional experiments that he had done, that “very few People have been willing to make use of it.”[2]  Throughout Continuation, Papin made efforts to promote his device to a wide variety of people.  He even performed a weekly live demonstration of his device—kind of the seventeenth-century equivalent of an infomercial.  However, his stipulation that anyone who attended needed “to bring along with them a Recommendation from any Members of the Royal Society” may have been working against his objective of trying to get more quotidian people interested in utilizing his Digester for practical purposes.[3]

There are many reasons why the pressure cooker may not have been immediately successful, including the temporal and monetary investment required to build the device, the fact that they did occasionally explode, and that preparing food was traditionally a female task, whereas Papin advertised his new technology toward men.  Nevertheless, Papin serves as an illustrative example of a member of the seventeenth century European knowledge community.  Similarly to many of his counterparts, Papin’s intellectual interests spanned many disciplines.  He studied medicine, performed physical and chemical experiments, taught mathematics, and knew multiple languages. 

The fact that Papin, and many of his counterparts, sought to apply theoretical principles to practical problems, such as food preservation and nutrition, while in turn utilizing their observations of these quotidian problems to further develop and refine their physical and chemical theories, can help us to understand that the equations written on the pages of our textbooks, and the quotidian events of our daily lives—such as preparing our daily bread—are not as disparate as we may have been lead to believe.

Resources and Further Reading

Papin, Denis.  A continuation of the new digester of bones its improvements, and new uses it hath been applyed to, both for sea and land : together with some improvements and new uses of the air-pump, tryed both in England and Italy. London: Printed by Joseph Streater, 1687.

Papin, Denis.  A new digester or engine for softning bones containing the description of its make and use in these particulars : viz. cookery, voyages at sea, confectionary, making of drinks, chymistry, and dying : with an account of the price a good big engine will cost, and of the profit it will afford. London: Printed by J.M. for Henry Bonwicke, 1681.

Shapin, Steven. “The Invisible Technician.” American Scientist 77, no. 6 (1989): 554-63. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.nyu.edu/stable/27856006.

Shapin, Steven.  A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Wootton, David. The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2016.

[1] Papin, A New Digester, 21.

[2] Papin, Continuation, A3-A3v.

[3] Papin, Continuation, A3v.

Jennifer Egloff earned her PhD in History from New York University in 2015.  Combining her undergraduate training in Mathematics with her graduate training in History, Egloff’s dissertation “The Cultural Life of Numbers in the Early Modern English Atlantic” incorporates elements of Atlantic History and the History of Science to explore the multivalent ways that Anglophone individuals utilized numerical methods and mathematical techniques to attempt the face the challenges brought on by the opening of the Atlantic to increased exploration and commerce, competing religious philosophies, and the increased availability of information.  A strong advocate of interdisciplinarity, Egloff recently held a short-term fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library as part of the Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, and she will be joining the History Department of Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in August 2019.


One Reply to “The Pressure Cooker was Not an Instant Success”

  1. Well, I learned something. Some thorough research was done on this, which I quite enjoyed. I wonder if Papin exclusively used the pressure cooker for all of his cooking needs once he had it perfected; once it stopped exploding. Did it save money on food in the long run? Also, I wonder if any sailors gave the cooker a shot once they heard Papin’s claims.

    Thank you for my education today! 🙂

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