The jerrycan was invented by the Germans during a secret project ordered by Hitler. The Germans called it the Wehrmachtskanister. The Germans had thousands of jerrycans stockpiled by 1939 in anticipation of war.
Today similar designs are used for fuel and water containers, some of which are also produced in plastic. The designs usually emulate the original steel design and are still known as jerrycans, although they have also been called "jerryjugs" (or "jerry jugs", just as jerrycan is sometimes spelled as two words as well).
The US version of the jerrycan is covered by military specification MIL-C-1283 and has been produced since the early 1940's by a number of US manufacturers, according to a current manufacturer, Blitz. The National Stock Number is 7240-00-222-3088 but it is considered obsolete, having been replaced with plastic versions.
The history of the Jerrycan is notable because it was reverse engineered during World War II. The name of the jerrycan reveals its German origins (Jerry being a disparaging wartime name for Germany and Germans).
Pleiss told American military officials about the can, but they ignored him. Without a sample, he realized he couldn't get anywhere. He eventually got the car shipped to New York by a roundabout method, and sent a can to Washington. The War Department decided instead to use the WWI ten-gallon can with two screw closures, which required both a wrench and funnel for pouring.
The one American jerrycan was sent to Camp Holabird, Maryland, where it was redesigned. It only retained the handles, size and shape. The weld was replaced with rolled seams, the lining was removed and it now required a wrench and a funnel.
The original design proved far superior and these fuel containers were subsequently used in all theatres of war around the world.
At the beginning of the Second World War, the British Army were equipped with simple rectangular fuel containers: a 2 Imperial gallon (9 litres) container made of pressed steel and a 4 gallon (18 litres) container made from tin plate. While the 9 litre - 2 gallon containers were relatively strong, they were expensive to produce. The 18 litre - 4 gallon containers, which were mainly manufactured in the third world, were cheap and plentiful but they were not very robust. Consequently they were colloquially known as flimsies.
While adequate for transportation by road in Europe, the flimsies proved to be extremely unsatisfactory during the North African Campaign and severely hampered the operation of the British 8th Army. The transportation of fuel over rough terrain often resulted in much of the fuel being lost as the containers were easily punctured. The resultant leakages also made the transportation vehicles liable to fuel fires.
When the British Army first saw the German fuel cans during the invasion of Norway in 1940, the British immediately saw the advantages of the superior design. The containers had three handles on them, which allowed easy handling by one or two people, or to be moved bucket brigade-style; the sides of the can were marked with cross-like indentations that allowed the contents of the can to expand; when filled, the cans retained an air pocket so that they would float on water; and rather than a screw cap, the containers used a cam lever release mechanism with a short spout secured with a snap closure and an air-pipe to the air pocket which enabled smooth pouring. The interior was also lined with an impervious plastic, first developed for steel beer barrels that would allow the can to be used for either water or gasoline. The can was welded, and had a gasket for a leak-proof mouth. The British used cans captured from the "Jerries" (Germans) — hence "jerrycans" — in preference to their own containers as much as possible. Later in 1940 Pleiss was in London, and British officers asked him about the design and manufacture of the jerrycan. Pleiss ordered the second of his three jerrycans flown to London.