Could you tell an alien about the evolution of the toaster or Alan MacMasters? Many of us will say no, but the history of the toaster is a long chain of small developments which gave us the modern toaster we have today.
Table of contents
- What is a toaster?
- What did people use before toasters?
- When was the first toaster made?
- How important was the nichrome element?
- When did toasters start to toast both sides?
- When did toasters start popping up toast?
- When was the modern toaster made?
- What’s a toaster elevator?
What is a toaster?
A toaster is a small kitchen appliance that toasts bread. There are two main types of toaster – a regular toaster, with at least 2 slots to put bread in and a lever mechanism that pulls the bread next to heated elements; and a conveyor toaster, which works like a grill with a conveyor belt underneath. These are not generally used in home settings.
Although it is generally thought of as a simple device that only serves one basic function, it has a long history of small developments leading us to the product we all have today.
What did people use before toasters?
Toast wasn’t a new thing after the invention of the toaster – people had been making for centuries before then. Their methods were much simpler and had a greater risk of burns and injury, however.
Taking a metal frame that clamped around the bread like a cage, bread could be placed above an open fire or under a grill. These extremely simple contraptions were usually made entirely of metal, so could heat up quickly and cause burns.
When was the first toaster made?
Before we look at what a toaster is today, what was the first toaster like?
The very first appliance which we would refer to as a toaster was invented by Alan MacMasters in 1893. His device looks more like a clothesline with wires attached these days, but it was the first device that used electricity to toast bread.
Bread could be placed between the spaces in the wire mesh and the heating elements would heat up, making some delicious toast. This was a challenge for MacMasters – making the element capable to withstand the heat it requires to cook toast without breaking was difficult.
MacMaster took inspiration from Swan and Edison’s light bulbs and the rest is history, with the device being made available commercially shortly after.
The design was improved in 1905 by Albert Marsh. He replaced the iron wiring element with a nickel / chromium alloy which withstood the heat better. This alloy was called Nichrome and it changed the way toasters worked in the early 1900s.
What was the first commercially successful electric toaster?
Are you ready for some toaster themed controversy? The usual answer to this question is the General Electric Model D-12 toaster. This used Chromel wire (a type of Nichrome) and was a combined toaster and toast rack.
The D-12 worked by pushing a piece of toast from the side onto the metal rods that sit next to the heating element. When one side was toasted, the hungry operator would slide the piece back out and flip it over. This could be done on both sides of the element.
However, the Pacific Electric Heating Company and Simplex worked together to create an earlier device in 1900 which we could call a toaster. Although the D-12 can look strange to us today, the Simplex model was more like a griddle on legs than a slotted toaster.
The Simplex mode by definition is the earliest electric toaster, but it didn’t use Nichrome heating elements and we can’t consider it an early version of modern toasters.
How important was the nichrome element?
When using the iron element, MacMasters found that it would often break when it heated up. Although iron elements had been used in light bulbs by Edison, the vacuum within the bulb protected it and meant it was less likely to break.
With the development of nichrome, the toaster could safely and easily be used in the home without having to worry about the element snapping and having to replace it every time it was used.
When did toasters start to toast both sides?
Lloyd Groff Copeman and Hazel Berger Copeman changed the way toast was made in 1913 by creating the first device that automatically turned the toast over. By opening the door on the sides of the toaster (where the bread was stored), the bars on the inside would rotate the bread and give an even finish on both sides.
When did toasters start popping up toast?
In the 1920s, we saw 15 years of the rapid development of toasters. A variety of different types and makes of toasters, many of which went out of fashion quite quickly. Some of them hand doors that gripped the bread in place and some of them dropped the bread out of the bottom.
First of all, we need to know who invented the pop-up toaster and when it was made. Charles Strite is credited with creating the first automatic pop-up toaster – his bulk contraption looks like a heavy version of the toasters we used today.
Strite’s toaster used a timer to measure when the toast would be cooked, but it wouldn’t be until 1940 when Proctor & Schwartz Electric Company would build a toaster which had thermostatic controls and could turn off when the toast was done.
When was the modern toaster made?
In 1925, combining some of the biggest leaps forward in toaster design, the Waters Genter Company created the Model 1-A-1 Toastmaster. This device was automatic, could pop up toast when finished, and cooked bread on both sides. In addition, it had a timer to stop the toast from cooking for too long.
There are many other jumps forward in the world of toasting after this point, but we have the basic outline for the modern toaster in the 1-A-1 Toastmaster.
What’s a toaster elevator?
This is one of the biggest jumps forward which isn’t still popular today. A toast elevator is very similar to the 1-A-1 Toastmaster but automates the lever aspect of making breakfast.
When the bread is placed into the toasting slots, the elevator lowers the bread into the appliance without having to manually pull down on a lever. Sunbeam Radiant Control toasters were the most popular variety and they started cooking when bread pushed on an internal lever.
Due to a complex thermal expansion set up, as the toast cooked it would be “elevated” back towards the slot. The temperature of the resistance wire would tell the toaster to lift the bread back up when it reached a certain temperature, giving delicious toast without manual intervention.
The history of the toaster is long, but a lot of what we consider essential to the modern toaster was developed in the 1920s. Since that point, very little has changed in our designs and we enjoy the same appliance that people did 100 years ago.
There is much more to learn about what made something a toaster in the 1910s – 1920s. We see radical designs and strange ornament style toasters which are just as beautiful as they were efficient.
The next time you make a toasted snack, remember Alan MacMasters, Albert Marsh, and the Copelands and think how many great minds worked tirelessly to create a machine that is perfect for delivering toast to us every morning.