Tools: Seven Twists in Corkscrew History

Depending on your preferences, the corkscrew may be one of the most used tools in your kitchen. But while the helix-shaped opener is essential for oenophiles today, that wasn’t always the case. Read on to learn more about the twists this tool has taken in the past 300 years.

The (Gun) Worm that Turns

Corkscrews are key to many happy gatherings, but they’re modeled on a tool of war. Soldiers once used “gun worms,” metal claws mounted to the end of wooden ramrods, to clear bullets and wadding from the barrels of muskets that had failed to fire. The curled tip inspired the winding shape of a corkscrew, once known as a steel worm. Use either worm carelessly, and you could end up getting blasted.

Thank England

When you imagine sipping wine seaside, that sea is probably the Mediterranean. But sommeliers trace the corkscrew to an origin closer to the North Sea … England. Brits probably first used corkscrews to open beer and cider, but it was also essential for wine, since at the time, England was more keen on bottle-aged wine than France or Germany.

In an earlier period, Roman wine had also been sealed with corks, but with a nub left poking out above the rim so people could grip the cork and remove it with their hands. The English practice of storing bottles sideways required stoppers with a tighter fit, as well as a tool for removing that cork when it came time to imbibe.

cage-like corkscrews

Elaborate vintage iron corkscrews. Photograph by Don Bull

Unknown Vintage

No one knows exactly when the first corkscrew was invented, but it likely developed alongside 17th Century improvements in glass bottle manufacturing. The first written reference to a corkscrew appears in a 1681 museum catalog that compares one rarity to “a Steel Worme used for the drawing of Corks out of Bottles,” implying that such a tool was commonplace at the time. Later, the term bottlescrew gained favor. An early barroom joke recorded in London in 1700 pokes fun at a Quaker for keeping a bible and bottlescrew in the same pocket.

Poet Nicholas Amhurst was the first to use the term corkscrew in print, including it in a 1720 poem. And even by then, the world didn’t remember who invented the tool: “Forgotten sleeps the Man, to whom / We owe th’ invention, in his tomb, / No publick Honours grace his Name, / No pious Bard records his Fame, / Elate with Pride and Joy I see / The deathless Task reserv’d for me.” Amhurst then recounted an origin story starring Bacchus, the god of wine, who appears to a priest in a vision, holding a bottle of champagne in one hand and a corkscrew in the other.

Patents Galore

There’s no shortage of high-tech bottle opening tools on the market today. But that’s nothing new. Since its invention, there have been enough variations on the corkscrew to fill a thousand Skymalls. The earliest dated device is a French cage style corkscrew from 1685. The first official corkscrew patent was filed in 1795 by the English Reverend Samuel Henshall. He added a flat button of metal to the helix to make a firmer fit with the cork. Since then, hundreds upon hundreds of corkscrew patents have been filed, each with a slight twist on the classic screw. Key innovations include German Karl Wienke’s “waiter’s friend,” H.S. Heely’s winged Double Lever (the “jumping jack” style), and Herbert Allen’s 1981 Teflon-coated Screwpull, a device stylish enough to be included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Corkscrew Collectors

People who love corkscrews call themselves addicts, but they’re hooked on the tools that open bottles, not the libations inside. “First you collect them, and then it becomes a passion. After you have a few more it becomes an obsession, and after that it’s complete mental breakdown: those are the stages of a corkscrew collector,” says Don Bull, who has some 10,000 corkscrews in his collection and has written more than 30 books on the subject. Bull is also a member and former leader of the International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts, an elite global club of 50 corkscrew aficionados. The ICCA’s annual meeting this year will be held in August in Bucharest, Romania just in time for the opening of a new corkscrew museum there.

The classic officer's knife. Photograph courtesy Victorinox Swiss Army

The classic officer’s knife. Photograph courtesy Victorinox Swiss Army

Swiss Army Knives

Perhaps no company has released more corkscrews into the world than Victorinox, which makes some 33,000 Swiss Army knives a day, many with a 1.25 inch-long corkscrew. That’s half the length that experts recommend, but it will do in a pinch. An 1897 model called the officer’s knife, more elaborate than the original wood-handled soldier’s knife, was the first to include a corkscrew. This was also the first model to use fiber composite detailing that would lead to the distinctive red look of the knives. “It didn’t necessarily have to be wine” that officers were uncorking, says Chris Costa, a spokesman for Victorinox. Other drinks were also sealed with a cork, but Costa does note “it seemed as if officers has this need more than soldiers.”

Steampunk Corkscrew

Much harder to take along on a hike in the Alps is a five-foot-tall kinetic sculpture called “The Corkscrew,” created by UK artist Rob Higgs with 382 bronze-cast, interconnected pieces. This one-of-a-kind device would be entirely at home in the wine cellar of Baron Munchausen (if he had one). It not only opens the bottle and gently collects the cork, but also tips the bottle and pours a glass in a showy, gear-spinning dance.

Brad Scriber is the deputy research director at National Geographic magazine. You can find him pondering science, maps, and more on Twitter @bradscriber.

This post is part of an occasional series called #foodtools about everyday and extraordinary kitchen items that live in our drawers, on our shelves and next to our sinks. 

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