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A jerrycan, also known as a jerrican, is a steel fuel or water container of roughly rectangular shape. The term originally applied to a specific design of container, which originated with the German army in the 1930s, but many people now use the term to refer to any fuel container of a similar shape. Jerrycans are durable, reliable and store fuel with a minimum of wastage.
German military engineers developed the first jerrycan in the late 1930s. The container was known as the Wehrmachtkanister or army canister. The Wehrmachtkanister had a number of important design features. Unlike many contemporary fuel containers, it could be poured without a separate spout. It was also lined with a plastic coating, meaning that it could be used to transport water as well as fuel.
The container also had a number of other important features. The flat shape meant that cans could be stored with a minimum of wasted space. The container's two halves required only a single weld to join them, making it quick and efficient to produce. Additionally, the top of the can had three handle, meaning that the canisters could easily be passed hand-to-hand when loading or unloading them. A single soldier could carry four cans at once by pressing the outer and inner handles together, although this was not practical with full containers.
Paul Pleiss, an American engineer, came into possession of a number of these containers in 1939, but the American military was slow to adopt the design. The British, however, admired the German design. British troops made extensive use of captured German fuel containers in the early years of the Second World War. It was during this period that the Wehrmachtkanister acquired the nickname "jerrycan," which derived from "Jerry," the British slang nickname for the Germans.
The design of the German fuel canister eventually impressed itself on the Allies, and by the middle of the war, the Americans and British were both using fuel cans derived from the Wehrmachtkanister. "Jerrycan" became the standard term for a steel fuel or water container. Eventually, the German origin of the term became largely forgotten.
Designs based on the original Wehrmachtkanister remain in use throughout the world, although most containers designed from the last quarter of the 20th century onward are plastic rather than metal. "Jerrycan" has become the common term for any water or fuel container with a roughly rectangular shape and an integral handle.