The History of the Corkscrew

Corkscrew. George Coppock | Getty Images

The precise “Eureka!” moment of the invention of the corkscrew has been lost in time. But the device—which has mutated frequently since its invention in the 17th century—remains an essential player in the ritual of wine consumption.

The rise of the corkscrew coincided with the rise of the use of cork to seal bottles. The English appear to be the first to deploy this method, using cork imported from Spain or Portugal.

Treatise on Cider by John Worlidge, published in 1676, makes repeated references to cork, and describes "binning of tightly corked cider bottles on their sides."

For thousands of years wine wasn’t aged.  It was stored first in terracotta amphoras and later in wooden barrels and served before it had a chance to spoil. Wine glasses and decanters first appeared in Venice around the 12th century, used only for serving the wine.

Glass-blowing technology improved and in the early 18th century glass wine bottles with small bottlenecks made airtight wine storage possible. Wine could now be safely aged. Soft but dense, cork, which comes from the wood of the Quercus Suber or cork tree, a species of oak native to Spain, was used as a stopper and sealant for wine bottles. And corkcrews—metal instruments shaped like a screw or helix with a sharp point and attached to a horizontal wooden handle—were as an easy way of removing the cork from a bottle.

Corkscrew inventors were inspired by a tool called the bulletscrew or gun worm, a device that extracted stuck bullets from rifles and clean musket barrels. Corkscrew historian Ron McLean from the "The Virtual Corkscrew Museum" notes that, “By the early 17th century corkscrews for removing corks were made by blacksmiths as using a cork to stopper a bottle was well established."

And by 1720 the corkscrew had made it into poetry, as the Oxford English Dictionary cites this couplet as the earliest printed mention from poet and satirist Nicholas Amhurst:  "This hand a corkscrew did contain, And that a bottle of champagne.”

The corkscrew has been a much-patented object since Englishman Samuel Henshall obtained one in 1795. While the basic design—that pointed helix that can twist its way downward, allowing the cork to be pulled from the bottle—has remained mostly unchanged, inventors have come up with new and novel ways to power the removal process and make a sometimes onerous task more simple.

While are other ways to seal wine containers, and plastic screw-top caps and enclosed aluminum cans have made gained market share—the cork remains the most popular sealant, ensuring the corkscrew’s usefulness will live on.