‘Digester of Bones’ is the name that the French-born polymath Denis Papin gave to a pressure cooker that he invented in the 1670s. By heating a sealed container he was able to create internal pressures that were several times greater than the Earth’s atmosphere, which simultaneously increased the temperature, allowing food to cook – and bones to be ‘digested’ into jellies – much more quickly than by conventional means. Papin wrote two books about his Digester in the 1680s. In these, he promoted the device’s numerous practical applications and financial benefits. He claimed that his Digester would be particularly well suited to preparing cost-effective and nutritious meals at sea, which could help to guard against scurvy. Papin also did live demonstrations to try to encourage individuals to construct and utilise his device.
Despite his efforts, Papin’s Digester was not widely adopted during his lifetime. This was probably related to the expense and time that one would have needed to invest in order to construct the device and learn to use it effectively; the potential for explosion; and the fact that many individuals were resistant to adopting new methods when the traditional methods worked well enough in practice, especially when such innovation had the potential to undermine the existing basis of expertise in one’s profession. Moreover, the fact that Papin addressed his texts and demonstrations to men, when women were generally the ones who prepared food, probably contributed to the limited reception of his technology during his lifetime. There was some practical and theoretical interest in pressure cookers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and an upsurge in practical use after they became commercially available in the 1930s. During the 2010s, the introduction and popularity of the Instant Pot and other affordable electric countertop multicookers transformed Papin’s technology into a regular household appliance.
Papin died in relative obscurity in 1712, and although he has not become associated with fundamental physical and chemical laws in the way that his higher-status contemporaries have (such as Christiaan Huygens, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton), in many ways he was an emblematic member of the early modern European knowledge community. His physical movements between France, England, Italy, and the German states, combined with the international dissemination of his ideas via printed texts and correspondence, illustrates the extent and degree to which knowledge production in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was in many ways a result of international networks and cooperation.