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Last week, in Salt Lake City, I finally found something I had been wanting to purchase for many years. I knew that at one time someone had made a toaster with windows large enough for a cut Kaiser roll and there it was quietly sitting on a shelf in the electronics section of a State Street thrift store.

Looking over the lineup I noticed there were several different types. One had long slots expressly for rye bread, there were several four burner types undoubtedly for larger families and sadly an old one with a broken handle and patched cord looking forlorn from an abused life.

As I walked forward someone cut in front of me, wistfully rummaging along the kitchenware section touching this and that as if taking an inventory for the store and continuously blocking my way. When I was ready to forget the whole idea, they moved on -- perhaps to count the adjoining CD section -- and I tucked the appliance into my cart.

Looking down at the inanimate object I could have sworn that it was wiggling slightly on the shelf just before I picked it up. The total transaction took less than a minute and I bought my toaster, complete with bagel buttons to shut off one side so as not to burn the top, at a bargain price of $5.

Today, toasters have come a long way from the metal long-handled fork that roasted bread over an open hearth fire. In our online connected age you can get a pricey one like the $100 Griffin Smart brand that hooks to your iphone for planning morning meals.

Just looking back over the history of toasters one can mark the biggest game changer for American kitchens: the advent of electrical power into homes starting somewhat around WWI. It was only a matter of time before electrical appliances were commonplace in a well operated home.

Everyone knows that all toasters use a hot filament to operate. This is what heats the slice of bread. While this may sound easy, there is a problem with this design since red hot wires easily fail from oxidation when operated in air. You may recall that Thomas Edison originally solved the problem of the hot filament failure in 1877 by encasing his glowing elements within a vacuum. Because this obviously cannot work for a toaster it took nearly 30 years for this electrical heater wire problem to be solved.

In 1906 a young engineer named Albert Marsh fabricated a thin filament out of an alloy he had created called nichrome wire. So reliable was his invention that nichrome has been used for the last 110 years in every toaster ever made. Nichrome is the red wire you see gently glowing and it is a strange electrical material.

Made of 80 percent nickel and 20 percent chromium (by mass), it, as a metal, has one of the highest resistivities of any common alloy. Because of its low cost of manufacture, high strength and ductility and most of all resistance to oxidation it is widely used in applications where electric heating elements are needed such as hair dryers and heat guns. The patent by Marsh (US 811859A) also lists cobalt as an alloying agent instead of nickel but that never took off perhaps due to the higher cost of cobalt metal.

Wikipedia says that the first U.S. patent for an electric toaster was filed by George Schneider while working for the American Electrical Heater Company of Detroit in collaboration with young Marsh. At that time, Marsh, who was a metallurgist by trade, was working for Hoskins Manufacturing as both a chemist and electrical engineer. Eventually, with their patent secured, Hoskins became the main source of nichrome within the United States, selling even to General Electric for the mass produced D-12 model. Unfortunately, the D-12 was only able to toast bread on one side. After side A was done you had to flip the bread around to toast side B. If you let it run too long the toast would catch on fire.

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In 1913 the husband and wife team of Lloyd and Hazel Copeman invented and manufactured a toaster in their Mansfield, Ohio factory that came with an automatic bread turner. This was the rage for a while and many were made until the pop-up toaster was invented and patented by Charles Strite in 1921. But don’t feel sorry for the Copemans. They went on to invent the flexible rubber ice cube tray and a wheel grease fitting that netted them well over $500,000 in 1920’s money. You may have heard of their grand-daughter, the singing artist Linda Ronstadt.

By 1926, with most urban homes having electricity laid in, the Waters Genter Company of Minneappolis introduced the Model 1-A-1 Toastmaster, the first automatic pop-up, household toaster that could brown bread on both sides simultaneously. This revolutionized the time-consuming chore of watching the toast and turning it when one side was done. Now you could make coffee and toast at the same time.

One good question most people have is: how does the toaster know when to pop-up? Some early versions had timers built in that used a preset interval to brown the toast. If you turned a front knob, more time would be added to give a darker color. This proved problematic when larger batches of toast were being made, the already hot toaster ran for the same pre-set time with every output getting darker and darker.

This was finally overcome when improved versions came equipped with a small bimetallic sensor that tripped the electricity and popped the mechanism when a certain temperature was reached. Adjusting the front knob now increased temperature instead of time.

Considering the combination of electricity and heat, your toaster may be the most dangerous appliance in your kitchen. A grim statistic in a 2008 report by Reuters claimed that faulty toasters killed 791 people worldwide from both electrocution and fires.

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Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

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