Twists and Turns

W hen you hear the satisfying pop of a cork this holiday season, you might think of 19th-century entrepreneur Philos Blake. A nephew of Eli Whitney, he’s the man New Haveners like to credit with the invention of the corkscrew, in 1860. A newspaper series of “New Haven’s Firsts” pasted into a 1940s scrapbook in the New Haven Museum’s collections exemplifies the notion:

Devotees of the jug or bottle are indebted to [Blake] for the ease with which they get to their good spirits. There is nothing more exasperating than a cork rammed down beyond reach of thumb and forefinger. And nothing more miraculously efficient in this predicament than Philos Blake’s little gadget.

But it turns out there’s a twist. While Blake filed the first US patent for a corkscrew, he didn’t actually invent the first corkscrew.

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Very early corks, used to stopper bottles of wine and many other liquids, had a tapered design and could, indeed, be pulled by hand as the newspaper writer suggests. But in the mid-1700s, the design of wine bottles changed, forcing corks to change too. Standardized glass bottles, which could now be binned sideways, called for more cylindrical stoppers. And that led to the need for a special tool for cork extraction, writes Jancis Robinson in The Oxford Companion to Wine (2006).

The first corkscrew, invented around that time, had a simple “straight pull” design: a metal helix, or “worm,” mounted perpendicular to a straight wooden handle. However, using this kind of corkscrew required a great deal of strength, as anyone who’s tried to open a bottle the old-fashioned way knows. So inventors set out to improve it. “[T]here have been many hundreds of inventions since the middle of the 18th century with the aim of producing a better, more efficient corkscrew,” Robinson writes, “and as yet none has been accepted as the perfect instrument.”

Blake’s achievement, then, is not the invention of the corkscrew but rather the invention of a kind of corkscrew. His 1860 patent for an “Improved Cork-Extractor” details what Eli Whitney Museum director Bill Brown calls a “brilliant and unique simplification” of the rack and pinion-style corkscrews of the time. Those existing models combined a horizontal handle, used to screw the worm into the cork, with a side handle to wind in the opposite direction, drawing the cork up out of the neck of the bottle. Blake’s model dispensed with the side handle—which, due to the force exerted on it, was prone to breaking—and replaced it with a simple wing nut just below the handle that, when twisted, drew the cork out of the bottle neck. Blake’s patent, number 27,665, includes line drawings of a stylish apparatus with a handle reminiscent of a gothic trefoil mounted on a long shaft, or “lifting screw,” with a corkscrew tip. A large wing nut is mounted on the shaft below the handle.

Ironically, local wine experts today prefer something that seems more primitive. Never mind Blake’s invention or even today’s popular model with arms that rise as you screw down the worm. “I’ll never use that funny-looking thing,” says Steve Bayusik, sommelier at Shell & Bones. “Everyone should have a two-stage wine opener like this.” He palms a device he’s just pulled from his jacket pocket: a wine key with a chunky handle into which is folded a worm and a two-stage mechanism that grips the lip of the bottle as you pull. It’s less likely to rip the cork, Bayusik says, and it gives you better leverage. “The real wine people will always tell you that one of these similar designs is always going to be the right one,” he says.

As if to prove the point, at Wine 101 in Whitneyville—just up the street from Blake’s old stomping grounds, where he ran the Whitney Armory with his brother, Eli Whitney Blake—shop owner Chris Fiore shows me his favorite corkscrew: a red model almost identical to Bayusik’s. Fiore says screwing in the worm by hand gives him more control. “It’s like a locksmith. Locksmiths can hear the pins clicking,” he says. “You feel it snag and you feel how much grip it’s getting in there… and when I start to wiggle it out, I kind of know where it’s gonna go.” Elm City Social bar manager Dan Rek concurs and adds that a sharp worm will grip the best. He prefers the same instrument as Fiore and Bayusik for getting the job done “in the middle of a busy dinner service.”

Oenophiles like Bayusik, Fiore and Rek aren’t the only ones with particular taste in corkscrews. Collectors abound online, paying thousands of dollars for antique models. According to collectorcorkscrews.com, Blake corkscrews are “extremely rare.” Their original price was reportedly 42 cents each, or $5 per dozen, but this website reports that one of Blake’s corkscrew sold at a Christie’s auction in 1998 for £9,775.

That price may be acceptable for serious collectors, but you don’t have to spend much to get the best corkscrew for your own kitchen. In fact, wine keys like Bayusik’s, Fiore’s and Rek’s are figuratively a dime a dozen; wine distributors often give them away as swag. The cheaper the better, Rek says, since corkscrews tend to get loaned out among staff and sometimes go unreturned. Contrary to author Robinson’s claim that the corkscrew has yet to be perfected, these implements seem pretty perfect to New Haven’s wine experts.

While we don’t have Philos Blake to thank for that particular innovation, the inventor did file a patent for an “improved oyster-knife” in 1854. Blake may not quite have earned the corkscrew credit he’s often handed, but he certainly deserves credit for trying to give our hands a break.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, featuring Philos Blake’s patented corkscrew design, downloaded from the online archives of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Image 2, featuring Blake himself, provided courtesy of the New Haven Museum. Image 3, featuring Shell & Bones sommelier Steve Bayusik and his trusty wine key, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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