What do beer, perfume, medicine and cosmetics have in common? A corkscrew has been needed to open containers of them all at one time or another. Originally known as bottle-screws, corkscrews were invented in England in the mid-1600s to wrest open bottles of beer and cider. Because maintaining a beverage's fizz required a tight seal, corks were forced deep into the necks of bottles and it was all but impossible to extract them without a special tool. Later, mini-corkscrews were designed for small bottles storing other liquid goods and provisions.
Early corkscrews were based on the steel worm, or screw, used to extract unspent bullets from muskets and pistols. By the 1800s, the businesses and blacksmiths manufacturing steel worms for muzzle-loading firearms were also making corkscrews.
For centuries, wine was stored in wooden barrels and consumed fairly quickly, before it spoiled. When it was discovered that wine not only survives but evolves and improves in sealed bottles, designs emerged to allow easy, horizontal stacking for long-term storage. It became important to drive lengthy corks firmly into the bottles to ensure a leak-proof fit and corkscrews soon became a necessity.
A T-shaped corkscrew with a simple handle and a helical worm was the earliest design and can still be found in use today. Because it takes a strength of 50 to 100 pounds to extract a cork with the T-shaped device, umpteen variations have been devised to ease extraction and - in many cases - to entertain. More than one cheeky manufacturer has designed a corkscrew capitalising on the worm's resemblance to a certain male appendage. Handle shapes are frequently crafted to resemble a woman's legs.
The ubiquitous folding, pocket-sized corkscrew seen in most restaurants is affectionately known as the 'waiter's friend' and was designed in 1883 by a German engineer, who added a conveniently concealed cutter to remove the bottle cap. A few years later, the Magic Cork Extractor was patented. Revived in the 1960s under the name Ah-so, this opener utilises two flat blades that are eased inside the neck of a bottle alongside the cork. The cork is then pulled out of the bottle with a twisting motion. The virtue of the Ah-so is it doesn't pierce the cork, so there is no danger of cork particles falling into the wine. Its virtue is also its vice as the cork can be easily reinserted into the bottle after it has been filled with inferior wine. For this reason it is known as the 'butler's friend' - presumably because the butler can extract a glass or two of the boss' fine Lafite and replace it with an inferior red juice made north of Lo Wu.
The levered Screwpull has been the most important advance in corkscrew design because it features a sharply pointed, Teflon-coated worm for easy insertion and extraction. The extremely long worm forces the cork to climb out of the bottle with virtually no effort by the server - an attribute not always appreciated the next morning. Still, a Screwpull is an excellent gift for a budding wine aficionado.
Like any device with historic evolution, corkscrews attract an avid circle of collectors, as can be seen at the Virtual Corkscrew Museum (www.corkscrewmuseum.com), which has more than 30 'rooms' of corkscrews exhibited by theme, such as Aquarium, The Armory, Planetarium and Linen Closet. The site even sports a corkscrew sound studio. And if you find the idea of corkscrew sounds stimulating, then you might like their newsletter, The Weekly Screw.