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A toaster works by applying radiant heat directly to a bread slice. When the bread's surface temperature reaches about 310 degrees Farenheit, a chemical change known as the Maillard reaction begins. Sugars and starches start to caramelize -- turn brown -- and to take on intense flavors.
That's toast.

With more heating, the sugars and underlying grain fibers start turning into carbon.
That's burnt toast.

--From a Consumer Reports test on toasters, June 1990

As stated above, toast is made by applying radiant heat to a slice of bread. This is easily done with fire, but creating an electrical device to toast bread presented quite a challenge. Alluded to in the Introduction , something special had to be invented in order for the electric toaster to exist - and that something was a wire that could be heated quickly to a red-hot temperature, and to be able to do this repeatedly without burning out or becoming brittle and breaking.

Thomas Edison worked long and hard to find an durable element wire that could heat to red-hot in the vacuum of a light bulb - the toaster needed an element that could function in open air.

Of course there were other possibilities for such a wire - an instant heat source wherever one had electricity for example - and many companies and individuals were involved in the search.

In March, 1905 a young engineer named Albert Marsh applied for a patent on an alloy of nickel and chromium, which came to be known as Nichrome. In his patent application Marsh described this alloy as having:
"...the properties of being very low in electrical conductivity, very infusable, non-oxydizable to a very high degree, tough and sufficiently ductile to permit drawing or shaping it into wire or strip to render it convenient for use as an electrical resistance element."

Eclipse toaster The First Electric Toaster (UK)?

Before addressing toasters that used Nichrome, it should be noted that there is an English model that is widely cited as being the first electric toaster - the Eclipse (shown in illustration at right). Curt Wohleber succinctly sums up what is known about this toaster and the company that made it in the Fall 2005 issue of Invention & Technology:

"A British firm, Crompton & Company, unveiled an electric toaster as early as 1893. Not much is known about that, but around the same time, Crompton also sold an electric space heater that used iron wires as heating elements. These had an unfortunate tendency to rust, melt, and start fires, and Crompton's electric toaster may have had similar drawbacks. Moreover, electric power was not yet widely available, and then often only at night, as households used electricity almost exclusively for lighting. Whatever its flaws may have been, the Crompton toaster was certainly premature."

The First Electric Toaster (US)

Back to Marsh and Nichrome... - with the necessary heating element now in existence, when did the first electric toaster appear? Only two months after Marsh applied for his patent on Nichrome, George Schneider, working for the American Electric Heater Company of Detriot, submitted a patent application for an enclosed toaster using a "suitable resistence wire" -- it is thought that he knew Marsh. We know of no example of this toaster, and are not certain that it was ever produced.

There must have been a number of prototype electric toasters made by companies and garage inventors alike in these early years, but it wasn't until 1909 that the first successful electric toaster was produced. In July, 1909, Frank Shailor of General Electric submitted his patent application for the D-12, considered the first commercially successful electric toaster.
Copyright © Eric Norcross

2000 Update:
There is now good evidence that a couple of other US companies were producing electric toasters as early as - or earlier - than the D-12. Those companies were: the Pacific Electric Heating Co. and Simplex.

D12 Patent Detail
Click to see full patent

Above is shown the patent drawing for the first version of the D-12. The D-12 had three incarnations, the first had high-sided baskets to hold the bread and it was a bit tricky to remove the toast from the hot toaster. The second version used fewer metal rods to make up the framework of the toaster - it kept the high sided baskets but made the ends open so one could push the toast out more easily. The third version, shown below , lowered the sides making inserting and removing bread much easier. All had ceramic bases that came in various degrees of decoration - plain white, white with gold accent, white with floral garland applique.

D12 Floral Base
Click for high-resolution image
GE D12
Click for high-resolution image

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