This is our new column “Great Ideas Never Die.” Here at SolidSmack we talk a lot about the future of Design and forget the History behind the tools, the inventions and the processes we use. Not to mention the rather kooky, inventive and slightly crazy designers behind them. So we decided to give them a spotlight – enjoy!

All is fair in love and war. A good design is no different. Do you ever wonder why they call the Jerrycan a Jerrycan? On the surface, the Allies stole the design from the Germans and renamed it to replace their own inadequate gasoline canisters (Jerry was war-time English vernacular for German – somehow “Kraut Can” never caught on). In a poor attempt to cover their asses, the US named them J.E.R.I. Cans, an acronym for Journey Extension Refillable Item. But the truth is far more entertaining – and is the first topic for SolidSmack’s “Great Ideas Never Die” column.

The Jerrycan: “the only container worth having”

The humble Jerrycan did more for the War effort than meets the eye. A durable container that was portable and user-friendly meant the difference between life and death on the battlefield. (Ever tried to fill your Panzer Tank while under fire from Soviet artillery? Personally, I never want to handle flammable objects whilst dodging artillery shells – maybe you feel the same?)

In the lead up to World War II, the German Wehrmacht (the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany) put out a bid for a design that resolved a lot of problems at once. Earlier gasoline cans developed in Germany, England and the US were poorly constructed – often variations of water containers. Many required special tools to be opened and required a funnel. In a hot environment (like a desert), gasoline vaporizes and can break the container’s seams. They were also impossible to stack into large, organized piles or rows. In spite of these shortcomings, little thought among Allied command was put into something as mundane as a gasoline container. For Adolf Hitler, a swift and crushing Blitzkrieg of Panzer tank columns depended wholly on a durable, easy-to-use gas-can. Especially since Germany had no oil resources of its own – not a drop could be wasted. The Wehrmachtskanister was born.

Specifications for the Wehrmachtskanister:

  • capacity of 20L;
  • empty weight of 4 kg;
  • easy pour short spout;
  • cam-lock top;
  • could withstand 50° ambient temperature;
  • simple construction of two pressed plates;
  • recessed welded seams resistant to shocks;
  • hot applied synthetic lining to resist corrosion;
  • floats in water when full – due to an internal air pocket;
  • four empty cans could be carried by one soldier;
  • two full cans could be carried by one soldier;
  • three full cans could be carried by two soldiers;
  • could be stacked efficiently;
  • easy to manufacture
  • minimized fuel loss

What was created by the German war ministry hasn’t really changed since WWII. The ‘X’ stamped on the metal walls provided structural strength and allowed for gas expansion under heat. The three handles on the top allowed for one or two people to carry a can. The cap was shut by a simple cam-lock mechanism, and angled appropriately for easy pouring and refilling. A small pipe travelled to the air pocket to ease the stuttering “glug-glug” when the gasoline was poured. Lined with plastic on the inside, the can could be used for water or gas. It was greater than the sum of its parts and far superior to the Allied gasoline containers.

How the Allies managed to get their hands on the German design is an interesting story. Details weren’t gleaned from German officers under harsh interrogation, or made from detailed plans stolen by elite paratroopers with passing resemblance of Brad Pitt. Rather, the story began in 1939 with an innocuous summer road trip from Berlin to Calcutta by an American Engineer and a German Engineer. Paul Pleiss had been working in Germany for some time, and had built his own car to drive all the way to India.  He invited a fellow German engineer along for the ride, who accepted. Before leaving, they realized they might need a few water containers (one hopes, to fill with fine German beer – these were engineers, after all.)

His fellow passenger used his security clearance to scoop up three Jerrycans from Tempelhof airport on their way out of Berlin. After 11 countries and many thousands of kilometers Pleiss’s German road companion was recalled back to Germany (details are uncertain as to whether or not this was because of treason or simply the outbreak of the War). His companion was gone, but Pleiss still had the Jerrycans and had gleaned details of their manufacturing. After arriving in Calcutta and later returning to the US, Pleiss passed along what he had learned about the sheer genius of the Jerrycan to US army officials. They ignored him, of course.

So, out of his own pocket, he shipped his car and the three Jerrycans back to the US. After demonstrating their effectiveness, the US Navy belatedly began to manufacture a copy. This copy was inferior in many ways: it did away with the X embossing, cam-levered cap, had no lining and they replaced the welds with rolled seams. Its obvious shortcomings did little to impress neither troops nor top brass and therefore the knock-off was not adopted.

Meanwhile, English troops began encountering the Jerrycan in their Norwegian campaigns of 1940. Evidently superior to their own, the British began capturing and retaining any Jerrycans. Whilst in London, Pleiss was queried by British officers about what he could share about the manufacturing of the containers. He immediately requested that his two remaining cans to be flown out. The British decided to manufacture an exact copy, deciding that in spite of the sickening political philosophy of a few Germans, their design philosophy was stellar and worth following.

By the time the Allies were carrying out their own long-distance campaigns, top brass caught on to how useful the Jerrycan had been. Richard M. Daniels, retired commander in the US Naval Reserve and chemical engineer recounted his perspective in 1987.

“In September 1942, two quality-control officers posted to American refineries in the Mideast ran smack into the problems being created by ignoring the Jerry Can. I was one of those two. Passing through Cairo two weeks before the start of the Battle of El Alamein, we learned that the British wanted no part of a planned U.S. Navy can; as far as they were concerned, the only container worth having was the Jerry Can, even though their only supply was those captured in battle.”

English Field Marshall Claude Auchinleck served alongside the Americans in North Africa (nicknamed, “The Auk” – could one take a man seriously with a name like that?) He spoke highly of the Jerrycan and the importance of a properly designed gas can in a report. By his estimates, the Allies’ “Flimsy and ill-constructed container” lost 1/3 of its contents from source to user. He notes, “To calculate the tanks destroyed, the number of men who were killed or went into captivity because of shortage of petrol at some crucial moment, the ships and merchant seamen lost in carrying it, would be quite impossible.”

However, persistence by the Jerrycan’s supporters paid off. By early 1943, two million British Jerrycans arrived to serve in the North African campaign. By the end of the WWII some 21 million of these cans lay strewn across Europe – repurposed for carrying water by civilians in bombed out areas. As President Roosevelt noted in late 1944, “Without these cans it would have been impossible for our armies to cut their way across France at a lightning pace which exceeded the German Blitz of 1940.” It could be argued that the innocent Jerrycan won the war. And why not… we all know that a great design always wins.