The cans of refried beans in your pantry might seem like a humble advance in civilization, but there's a reason civil defense officials advise everyone to keep a supply. The ability to preserve foodstuffs for long periods without refrigeration enables people to survive natural and man-made disasters that disrupt our electrical supply and make it difficult to obtain supplies of fresh food.
Canning was invented in the late 18th century out of military necessity. Napoleon's troops were suffering more casualties from hunger and scurvy, a nutritional deficiency, than they were from combat with the enemy, and the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a method of preserving soldiers' provisions in the field [source: Can Manufacturers Institute]. A Parisian named Nicholas Appert, who had worked variously as a candy maker, chef and beer brewer, came up with the idea of partially cooking food, sealing it in bottles with cork stoppers and then immersing the bottles in boiling water to expel the air inside. He believed the air caused it to spoil. (It would be another half century before Louis Pasteur would discover that heat actually killed the microorganisms that spoiled food and caused illness.)
French soldiers took Appert's samples of poultry, vegetables, gravy and other items along with them when they were sent on an overseas voyage, and they reported that after four months, it remained edible. In 1810, English inventor Peter Durand received a patent for an improved food container, which had a soldered lid instead of a cork. Two years later, two of Durand's countrymen, Bryan Donkin and John Hall, opened a factory that put food into metal cans instead of bottles [source: Can Manufacturers Institute].