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After tepid reception, inventor made millions on self-opening can

WASHINGTON—There's no monument to Ermal Fraze, the Indiana farm boy who invented the pop-top can. But Super Bowl watchers will encounter descendants of his achievement several hundred million times this weekend, based on Beer Institute figures, and that's not counting soft drinks.

Schlitz drinker Fraze, who was known as Ernie, took up the can problem in 1959 when, while picnicking with family and friends, he realized he had no opener. Fraze made do using a car bumper, but later said he thought to himself: "There must be a better way."

Fraze, who'd grown up on a livestock and alfalfa farm outside Muncie, had started a tool and die shop, Dayton Reliable Tool and Manufacturing Co., in 1949 with the help of an $800 loan from his wife, Martha, a secretary. For months Fraze was the sole employee, and for a while he milled Cracker Jack prizes to get by. By the time he started pondering the self-opening can, he had customers in several industries.

Indigestion from after-dinner coffee at a Dayton, Ohio, steakhouse called The Pines got Fraze up one night in the early ླྀs, he recalled in a 1987 speech to a business history group, the Newcomen Society. He was due at work at 6 a.m., and thought he'd work an hour on the can problem.

The self-opening can had long been a dream of inventors, but the devices they came up with broke or otherwise failed far too often for brewers.

Fraze thought the secret was the rivet, that fastener the size of a screw's head at the middle of the top of the can. In his system, the rivet held a small lever, later a ring with two prongs. Pulling one end of the lever depressed the opposite end, where the rivet was, breaking the can's seal. Pulled a little more, the lever opened a prescored strip in the top of the can, creating a hole through which the beer flowed.

Fraze devised a rivet that was formed from the same aluminum in the can's top. The little lever, and later the ring-pull tab, was forced down onto the rivet by a cold-welding process called staking.

Big breweries initially spurned the new tops because they required expensive retooling, according to Fraze's son, Terry. Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, the country's leading aluminum producer, wasn't interested either, at least at first. Three Alcoa representatives came to Dayton to study his cold-welded samples until, according to Ermal Fraze, "one said to the others, in a very quiet voice, `I think we are being hoodwinked.'"

Fraze later sold his invention to Alcoa, and Dayton Reliable Tool made the systems that brewers and soft-drink companies needed to make cans to his design.

Their first customer, Pittsburgh Brewing Co., maker of Iron City Beer, ordered 100,000 can ends in 1962. Iron City's sales soared 400 percent in the next six months, recalled Terry Fraze, former chairman of his father's company. Beer and beverage makers started beating a path to Dayton.

Bartenders hated the sharp edges of the earliest version, according to Terry Fraze, and inverted the cans to open them with traditional "church key" openers. In 1965, his father came up with a ring-pull version that caused less bloodshed. Next came one with a dimpled ring to prevent its use to jam parking meters and, in the ྂs, a now-mandatory nonremovable ring, which reduced litter.

Terry Fraze demurred when asked how much his family had made from the self-opening can. One clue is that Dayton Reliable Tool reported $50 million in revenue and had 500 employees in 1980, when it was supplying much of the world with can-end machinery.

In a cell phone interview from a yacht offshore of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, Terry Fraze, now 57, recalled what his father sometimes said about himself: "I did pretty well for a farm boy."

Dutch by ancestry, the elder Fraze delivered 540 newspapers a day in Muncie during the Depression and sold sandwiches to his customers. He found tool and die work in Dayton and later earned an engineering degree at the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint, Mich.

He was 5 feet 5, too short for the Navy in World War II, according to his son. He made war materiel instead, and his patented inventions included improved gun barrels to speed up the bullets fired by fighter planes. Before the improvement, some of the planes had been so fast that they flew into their own bullets.

Although Dayton Reliable Tool's clients for special machinery and tooling eventually included General Electric, Ford, Chrysler, U.S. atomic-energy programs and NASA, it was slow going at first.

Once he'd turned a profit, Fraze told the Newcomen Society, he realized it was time to repay his wife's loan. So he bought her a chartreuse Pontiac convertible.

Fraze died of a brain tumor in 1989 at age 76. His company has since been sold and repurchased by its managers and now does business as DRT Mfg. Co.

To see the patent for Fraze's ring-pull can, go to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site, at www.uspto.gov/index.html, and click on "Search" under "Patents" on the left side of the page. Click on "Patent Number Search" on the left side of the next page, and put in: 3,349,949. Hit "Search." Next, click on "Images." You'll need QuickTime to see the drawings and pages.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): POPTOP

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