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Toasters – Re-visited

February 24, 2012

We had to dig into another toaster a few weeks ago.  We learned a few things about toasters in the process.  To understand toaster design, you kind of need to understand toaster history (this is an interesting job to say the least!).


  • The first electric toaster was developed in Scotland in 1893.  It used electric wires as heating elements and only cooked one side at a time.  You had to turn the toast to cook both sides.  It used iron wire, which oxidized quickly and melted down, creating a bit of a fire hazard.
  • In 1909 General Electric sold its first manual electric toaster of similar design.
  • In 1913 Hazel Copeman told her husband, Lloyd, that he should invent an automatic way to turn the toast over to save her some time.  Lloyd obediently complied and Hazel and Lloyd patented their device.  Westinghouse produced this product under Copemans’ patent.
  • In 1919, Charles Strite, an inventor working for a plant in Minnesota, got fed up with the cafeteria’s burnt toast and invented an automatic toaster.  It heated both sides at once and ‘popped up’ when done.  This was the precursor of modern toaster technology.
  • In 1926 the Waters-Genter Company perfected Strite’s design and marketed it.  Their logo was three loops representing the toaster heating elements and the new product was called a “Toastmaster”.
  • Sales were slow because bakeries sold unsliced loaves and consumers sliced bread to whatever thickness they liked.  Until the Continental Baking Company sold pre-sliced bread (called Wonder Bread) this lack of uniformity made it difficult to mass-produce a toaster everyone would like.
  • By 1928 however, pre-sliced bread was selling and so did Toastmasters.
  • By the 1960’s every American household had an automatic electric toaster.

Strite’s design used a mechanical latch to hold the bread down until toasted.  A bimetallic thermostat would disconnect the latch causing the toast to pop up and diconnect power.  Mechanical parts wear out over time and Strite’s design could fail in one of two means.  The latch could wear out and the toaster would never stay down to cook the toast.  Alternatively the thermostatic control could fail and the toast would never pop up, the power to the heating elements would never turn off and a fire could result.  We’ve heard tales of enterprising arsonists modifying the bimetallic thermostatic control to make an incendiary fire look like an accidental failure of a toaster.

Today, toaster design has improved a bit on Strite’s original latch mechanism.  A new toaster today will not stay down unless plugged in.  That’s because we use electro-magnets to hold the toaster down.  If you lose power, the toaster will fail to the up and off position providing a higher level of safety for the consumer.  Newer toasters rely on resistors, capacitors and printed circuit boards, so electrical failure is as possible in this electronic device as in any other.

You can check to see if your toaster is mechanical or electrical by unplugging it and pushing it down.  If it stays down while unplugged, it uses a mechanical latch system and doesn’t have the safety designed into it that modern toasters do.  If it doesn’t stay down while unplugged, you have the latest that space-age toaster design has to offer.

The bottom line is still to unplug your toaster if it’s not currently toasting something.  We’ve said that before and the National Institute of Standards and Technology say the same thing.  In our incident several weeks ago, unplugging the toaster would have prevented the fire and kept our guys out of someone’s kitchen.


From → Fire Prevention

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