But one man called Alan MacMasters is credited today as bringing the humble toaster into our lives with his (at the time) cutting edge invention. Learning about the first toaster – long before practically space-age developments by MacMaster’s standards like the pop-up toaster – is a journey into the bizarre story of how a toaster works.
Table of Contents
- What did people use before toasters?
- Who was Alan McMasters?
- What was the first toaster?
- Was the first toaster safe?
- Have toasters changed much since then?
What did people use before toasters?
Before the late 1800s, if you wanted toast, you had to make it manually. That’s not to say that they had to hold the bread over a fire with their bare hands, but instead, they used some rare bizarre contraptions that looked like cages.
These metal frames were made of two square-shaped metallic frames that had bars running along with them (much like a modern grill). When you wanted some delicious toast, you would put your bread between the grills, squeeze them together, and hold the bread over an open fire. A rather inefficient system by our modern standards.
In essence, you could say that the first toasters were these simple pieces of equipment. But that’s not really what we want. We want to know who invented the first-ever electric bread toaster
Who was Alan McMasters?
If you search into the history of the toaster, you will find a man called Alan MacMasters. He is credited with creating the first toaster that used electricity. This toaster was produced by Crompton, Cook & Company, a leading electrical supply company in the late 1800s, under the name of the Eclipse. This device now looks bizarre to us, but it was MacMasters’ brainchild.
Aside from being the man who invented the toaster, MacMasters was a Scottish engineer from Edinburgh who made many great engineering leaps forward. He is credited with creating a new lighting system that would be used on the London Underground Northern Line. He was also the inventor of the first-ever electric kettle.
Before his invention which changed the world of toasting forever, he had spent his years in education at the University of Edinburgh. During this time, he created the first toaster. He had been invited to work in Crompton’s lab and develop a device for toasting bread with nickel.
What was the first toaster?
Using the nickel element, MacMaster’s developed what would become the Eclipse. This bizarre contraption was made up of a ceramic base and a metal frame which stood over the base like a bell shaped cage.
The use of nickel had been difficult as the metal was prone to breaking when superheated. This meant that early attempts were plagued by finding ways to stop the wiring from melting as quickly as it did. This also meant that it was a serious fire hazard.
The sides of the cage were wide enough to hold a piece of bread. Inside, there were three heating elements that hung from the top of the cage. These were used to cook the bread that rested on the outside.
When power was fed to the toaster (a difficult process that involved attaching the device to a lamp fixture via the use of an adapter), it would heat the elements and one side of the bread would begin to cook. This process could then be repeated on the other side.
This looks positively hazardous to us now, but this design was standard at the time. It would take almost 50 years before toasters came enclosed in shells!
Was the first toaster safe?
No, actually. Although exposed heating elements weren’t uncommon at the time, Alan MacMasters’ device is actually credited infamously with causing the first deadly appliance fire in 1894. MacMasters denied responsibility, however.
When a woman from Guildford (a town just outside London) put the toaster to work, she was “overcome with flames” after a short while as the elements had broken. When the elements broke, the superheated nickel fell onto the table that the toaster was stood on and ignited the house.
MacMasters said that improper use of the device led to the fire, not the appliance itself. As it had been left unattended (which, in MacMasters’ mind, was grossly negligent), he was not held responsible for her death.
Have toasters changed much since then?
Yes, incredibly so. Whereas the bizarre design of the first toaster might have been common for people who could afford one at the time, you won’t find anyone using such dangerous equipment these days.
The device housed only one set of elements (3 to 4 wire elements suspended from a cage), so it could not toast on both sides of the bread. This meant having to turn over your bread by hand when it was appropriate to do so.
Because the device was only a ceramic base, a cage, and a few elements, we would not have been able to enjoy modern conveniences such as two-sided cooking, pop-up toaster features, or even a heat setting. You plugged it in and tried to turn the bread over before it burned! MacMasters himself said that observation was necessary, so he probably didn’t think this was much of a problem.
Probably the biggest difference is the lack of a protective shell – the elements could be touched easily by anyone who was silly enough to want to do it. There is nothing protecting them from the outside, so this made the appliance a serious fire risk when used improperly. Strangely, this kind of design wouldn’t change for most toasters for another 50 years after MacMasters’ invention was first mass-produced.
The first toaster was built by Alan MacMasters in the late 1800s and was mass-produced up until 1893. The design and infamy it had (due to the Guildford electrical fire death) meant that it didn’t sell successfully. Other toasters developed around the same time did very well. They all led the way for Charles Strite to build the first automatic pop-up toaster in 1919.
Although a fantastic piece of engineering by their standards, the toasters we have seen throughout the years have been of a much safer and higher quality. Still, no toaster timeline is complete without MacMasters’ powerful invention.
Much like the proper respect MacMasters demanded people pay to the power of his electric toaster, we should pay respect to his invention for the great strides it made in delivering delicious, crispy toast to our homes.