History of sterilisation - History of the WECK Company

From always, provisioning and more particularly the preservation of foodstuff has always been an essential need of the human being. Provisions gave him the assurance of never suffering from hunger and deprivations during the years of famine or lean cows.

Preservation method from Ancient Times to Modern Times

Long before the WECK sterilisation process takes first place in the methods of foodstuff preservation, man resorted to other methods and techniques to preserve it. Thus, in the beginning, foodstuffs were either dried in the shade or in full sunshine, either salted or in brine, or even immersed in salty, vinegarish or sugared water. A Roman poet and writer Varro, who lived from 116-27 BC, described a practice which at first glance looks like a sterilisation method but, under closer examination turns out to be a simple salting or sugar conservation of foodstuffs. According to his testimony, the Romans of his time dipped fruit in grape juice thickened by cooking or in salt solutions, all stored in earthenware jars closed with covers. The tails of fruits were also immersed in boiling pitch, then packed and stored away from light.

Bocal Weck

Birth of a great discovery

The technical starting point of sterilisation, and later the very sterilisation process, was only found in Modern Times.

Otto von Guericke, born in Magdeburg in 1602 and died in Hamburg in 1686, was a scientist, engineer and politician, who made at that time a very important discovery. His influence on sterilisation was partly indirect: he invented an electrostatic friction machine; he discovered the electric repulsion, conductivity and influence and built the first barometer.

Otto von Guericke during his experimentation with the famous Magdeburg hemispheres


But his merit lies in the fact that he was the first to recognise the materiality of the air and to determine its thermal expansion. He was the first to experiment on the vacuum by trying to measure the effect of the external pressure on an empty or low pressure chamber.


Famous is his historical experience performed before the members of Parliament in Regensburg in 1654 with the famous "Magdeburg hemispheres" that enabled him to demonstrate, to the great astonishment of the spectators, the greatness and power of atmospheric pressure. Guericke was aware of the value of his discovery for the future of technology, even if he could not guess that he had thus discovered an important step in the sterilisation process, namely the closure under pressure of sterilising jars.

Denis Papin, French scientist and physicist born in 1647 and died in 1712 in Marburg an der Lahn in all likelihood performed the second decisive step in the discovery of the sterilisation process.


Denis Papin et sa DigesterPapin, who had close friendly relations with the great German philosopher and universal scholar Leibniz had gone to Marburg on the occasion of his appointment as lecturer at the university of that city. Papin, nicknamed by his contemporaries as “the man-disaster," made many experiments. Already in 1690, Papin produced the first vacuum with water steam in the famous "Papin Pan," a thick walled copper pressure pan. By equipping this pan with a safety valve, Papin started from simple observation to ascertain that a liquid cannot exceed its boiling temperature unless the lid of the container is tightly closed.

Denis Papin at work with his DigesterLa steam thus created does not stop to exercise its pressure on the liquid and moves the boiling point. For his experiments, he first used a glass container that often cracked or just burst. Papin called his pan the "Digester". Through such pans, Papin preserved also jellies "of an unrivalled taste," and even boiled meat. His experiments with the "Digester" made him more famous among his contemporaries than his other much more important scientific works and which were at the origin of new foundations of physics. At the time of the Papin experiments, the rubber ring did not exist yet and closing was provided by turpentine putty.

The Papin experiments remained only at the stage of scientific experimentation; they never found a practical application in the preservation of foodstuffs. Guericke had discovered closure in vacuum and Papin had found how to make vacuum with steam - transformation of air under the action of heat.

It is actually François Nicolas Appert who discovered that the second stage of the sterilisation process, namely how to kill all saprogenic bacteria inside and outside of foodstuff. Born in Chalons sur Champagne in 1749, he first practiced the trade of cook under the name of Franz Nikolaus at the Court of Duke Christian IV von Zweibrücken. Then, he went to establish himself as master chocolate confectioner in Paris. Around 1790, he discovered the principle of preservation through heat. He based himself for this on the experiments of the Italian monk and professor, Lazzaro Spallanzani, who lived from 1729 to 1799. The latter, as part of the eternal debate on the appearance of organisms from a dead substance, had already demonstrated in 1769 in his scientific hypothesis "without life, no life" that by closing hermetically the container and by heating long enough the liquid of an organic material, it so happened to prevent the development of microbes, to kill for sure any similar microorganism.                                       

After being appointed commander of the republican French Army by the Directoire on 26 October 1795, Emperor Napoleon 1st performed as part of his duties a remarkable action: he offered a very high reward for that time - 12,000 golden francs - to whoever would find a method for preserving foodstuffs. This was in order to expand the possibilities of supplying foodstuffs to the troops because he himself had suffered from insufficient foodstuffs during the siege of Toulon in 1793. By then, he had already realised the need to find a process that would preserve the supplies of the army and of the navy that could therefore follow the soldiers everywhere throughout their journeys. An adequate supply of troops would be ascertained once and for all, even in inhospitable areas and in winter. This award was actually won in 1810 after the French navy had tested preserves over several sea crossings, the food having been preserved by the principle of boiling. But at that time, there were only glass containers which by their fragile nature were in limited use on ships.

Napoleon at the award of the prize of Nicolas Appert in 1810

It is Nicolas Appert who won the prize for "the art of preserving to any vegetable or animal substance its original freshness", as stated in the act of concession. Appert was asked to transcribe his knowledge in a cookbook, which appeared already in 1822 in the Mörschner and Jasper editions, Vienna, in the German version under the title of "The art of the preservation of all vegetable or animal substances from meat, poultry, game, fish to vegetable toppings and cakes through medicinal plants, fruit, meat jellies and fruit juices, besides beer, coffee, tea, etc. without losing one gram of freshness and flavour”. In full honours, Nicolas Appert died in Paris in 1841 at the age of 91.

Anyhow, Appert had in practice favoured the discovery of Louis Pasteur - French chemist and bacteriologist born in 1822 and died in 1895 who often referred in his scientific works on the experiments of Appert. The difference between Appert and Pasteur is the fact that Pasteur discovered yeast bacteria in the air and tried to make them harmless by leaving them for a few moments at a temperature of 70 °C, while Appert noticed by practice and experience that to achieve a sustainable preservation the foodstuffs had to be sterilised, that is to say boil them at 100 °C. With the discoveries of Guericke and Papin, the experiments of Appert and the scientific reports of Pasteur, all necessary conditions were now gathered - even taken separately, to finally discover the WECK sterilisation process.


The problems and the task to be accomplished had been brought to light; it only remained now to combine all these elements to reach the final discovery.

It is chemist Dr. Rudolf Rempel from Gelsenkirchen that managed to combine all these discoveries and who developed the sterilisation process. The discovery of this man who was born in 1859 and died at the age of 34 in 1893 was patented on 24 April 1892. His wife recounted later in a beautiful letter dated 6 October 1939 addressed to the WECK Company how her husband had found this process that was going to cover the entire world: "50 years ago, my dear husband now deceased, Dr. Rudolf Rempel, then a chemist at the Gelsenkirchen coal distillation Company undertook the first experiments; he used chemistry laboratory powder jars whose edge was polished. He covered the jars with a rubber ring and a tin lid and plunged the jars filled with foodstuff in boiling water by placing a heavy object (stone or weight) on the lid of each jar.

The sterilised milk that he consumed after a few months during one of his visits to the laboratory to make a coffee was remarkably fresh. Then he started the tests at home on Sundays, days of rest, with fruit and vegetables that we would collect directly from our large garden. I had polished the jars on the kitchen sink with abrasive powder, which was not an easy task, and we tried in all possible ways to sterilise various fruit and vegetables having a beautiful appearance. Often the jars did not close but those who remained sealed withstood remarkably well. It was then necessary to produce a device that would keep the lid on jars during cooking. A device, in which we screwed the jars for cooking, was quickly abandoned because of the many failures. We then produced a device where the jars were under spring pressure. But the attempts were far from convincing. I prepared as many as 80 to 100 canned fruits and vegetables for our own use and it was only after many Sundays that I managed to give to my canned goods a beautiful appearance.

One day, we hosted a consulting engineer, Dr. Otto Sack from Leipzig. He made a speech about the new law governing patents and the protection of registered models before the Technical Committee. My husband was the chairman of this committee. When Dr. Sack saw our multi-coloured jars, he was very excited and told my husband, "You have made a great discovery. To date, there is no sterilisation process that has been proven besides tin cans". With the support of the consulting engineer, my husband obtained patents in many countries and his younger brother, a manufacturer in Plettenberg, Kreis Altena, was in charge for the distribution of jars and appliances. Among the first customers, there was a certain Mr. Johann Weck.

He showed a keen interest for this business and ordered a full wagon of jars. But we were not yet equipped to deal with such large orders. All our savings were swallowed by the acquisition of patents, the construction of a warehouse, prints and advertising. My husband fell seriously ill and died at the age of 34. Albert Hüssener, the director of the first benzene factory in Germany (my husband had been employed there), smelled a good business and founded the Hüssener Company. But he made the mistake of not investing in advertising and as his expectations were not fulfilled, an acquaintance, Johann Weck, bought the business.

At Zabern (Saverne in French) in Alsace, I still had in my possession about 100 jars which I used regularly. I showed them to several of my acquaintances who were enthusiastic and soon all ordered their own jars directly at Öflingen. It was not long before an Alsatian merchant obtained the resale rights. It is thanks to me that the first jars appeared in Southern Africa: the sons of my friends, who were officers with the occupation troops, soon received from their mothers the WECK jars filled with fruits, vegetables and meat. Today - at 75 - I am still interested in the devices and I rejoice to see how the new devices and jars are well finished and irreproachable. I noticed it myself when I offered yesterday to my daughter jars as a wedding gift”.

Past, present and future of the WECK Company:

verrerie weck, photo de Johann Weck

The name of Johann Weck appears for the first time after the discovery of the process and its certification. Johann Weck, born in 1841 in Schneidheim in the Taunus, had moved in 1895 to Öflingen near Säckingen in the Baden Land at the Swiss border, after having bought from Director Hussener the "Rempel patent". Johann Weck was a notorious vegetarian and defender of life without alcohol. With his products, he wanted to wipe out the scourge of alcohol which then struck the population.

He could now be described as "apostle of nature" and protagonist of a natural and healthy lifestyle. To some extent, he was even marginal and sometimes fickle; he had always to be on the move. The Baden region, rich of orchards, showered his vows. It is like this that Johann Weck - who, as a relentless adept of Dr. Rempel, had obtained the exclusivity for all southern Germany of the new jars and devices to be sterilised, and who later had bought from Hüssener all the Company, that is to say, the whole business including the sterilisation patent - decided to found his own Company in Öflingen in Baden to spread out from there throughout the German territory. But very soon he realised that he could not assume alone the whole business. The commercial work and the required planning for an expansion of this magnitude were not his forte. He therefore allied with the services of a collaborator in the person of a merchant from Emmerich em Niederrhein to whom he had already granted the local representation of his products.
This merchant, Georg van Eyck, born in 1869 in Emmerich, had since his youth entered the family business trade of porcelain and pottery. As a youth he had already the intuition of the merchant who knows the needs of his customers. It is in this way that in the mid-90s, he took the novelty that Johann Weck had offered to porcelain and pottery businesses in Germany: the WECK jar sterilising method. But as Johann Weck had no business sense and knew nothing on advertising, his offers remained desperately unheeded, with the exception of the van Eyck Company in Emmerich. In two years, Georg van Eyck had sold to the housewives of Emmerich, Wesel and surroundings more WECK jars than all the other businesses in Germany put together. He saw far and with his common sense, he had recognised on one hand the importance of this process for a household but on the other hand the possibility to offer to housewives not only jars but also practical demonstrations to convince them to purchase. Later, Georg van Eyck often thanked the women of Emmerich, Wesel and surroundings of having contributed to the worldwide generalisation of the principle of "canning", acknowledging at this time the importance of the WECK process for constituting the foodstuff supplies to housewives.

EyckIn such a context of success, it is not surprising that Johann Weck asked his talented customer Georg van Eyck from Emmerich how he managed to sell so many WECK jars. When Georg van Eyck described his way of proceeding, Johann Weck spontaneously asked him if he did not want to settle in Öflingen-Baden and organise the sale of his WECK jars throughout Germany. Georg van Eyck accepted and founded with Johann Weck on 1 January 1900 - at the dawn of the 20th century - the Johann Weck and Co. Company in Öflingen (now Wehr-Öflingen). Relentlessly, he built his business and extended it to neighbouring European countries such as Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Switzerland and France. Nothing undermined his tenacity, not even the departure of Johann Weck in 1902 who sold his shares for personal and family reasons against a very high license agreement.

Georg van Eyck trained his own employees and organised nationwide the introduction and sale of the WECK jars and WECK devices based on the same measures as those he had applied in his beginnings and which had been so well successful. He hired female home economics teachers that offered in schools, rectories and hospitals contracts with internships for jars and appliances and he never ceased to improve jars, rings, sterilising devices, thermometers and other utensils that he marketed under the "WECK" brand.

Under the WECK brand he created one of the first branded articles in Germany and started a well thought advertising campaign which associated the symbol of the strawberry to the word WECK to make it a branded article - a label that is found even today. A few years after founding his company, Georg van Eyck inherited a small glass factory in Friedrichshain near Cottbus which he made over the years a relatively large and successful Company for that time. During the first four decades, and until the end of World War II, hundreds of millions of WECK jars were manufactured there without which in Germany and in Europe the conservation of household supplies would not have been possible, especially in the hard times of the two world wars. 

The WECK Company suffered serious setbacks with the two world wars. When World War I broke out, all commercial contacts with Europe and across the Atlantic were brutally broken and at the end of World War II, the three WECK Company glassware factories which were located in Eastern Germany - the Friedrichshain factory near Cottbus, the Wiesau factory and the Penxig factory near Görlitz, were confiscated without any compensation. After World War II, a new WECK glassware factory was then built in the West, at Bonn-Duisdorf, which in 1950 resumed production of the WECK jars. The new factory in Bonn-Duisdorf, today still owned by the grandchildren of founder Georg van Eyck, has meanwhile developed into a very successful Company thanks to automation. It does not only manufacture the traditional WECK jars but also industrial flasks and bottles for the packaging industry without forgetting the very sought-after WECK glass bricks for their quality of decoration and in the building industry.

le plus ancien bocal WeckExcerpt from “The WECK Book of Sterilisation, how to properly and safely sterilise" 2008 edition.