A Simple Simplex
By Eric Norcross
Piecing together history involves deduction, inference, speculation and the willingness to change previously held beliefs - even for fairly recent events.
Charles Fisher, writing in the only authoritative book on toaster history (now in print as Hazelcorn's Guide to Old Electric Toasters) states, "Electric Toasters date only from about 1908. Before that, there was no wire that could stand red heat long enough to work in one." This statement is based on the knowledge of the 1906 patent date of the Nichrome wire, and the assumption that since it became standard use in most all electric toasters subsequently, no electric toaster existed before Nichrome. Fisher also concluded, using the patent record, that it was not until the General Electric model D-12 began being manufactured in 1908-09 that the first electric toaster appeared. In the volume 2, #2 of hotwire we presented evidence that Hotpoint (Pacific Electric Heating co.) was advertising a flatbed toaster as far back as 1908 as well, presumably using the Nichrome wire.
However, plenty of other electric appliances were being manufactured and sold before Nichrome was developed, why not a toaster? In fact, at least two did exist made by the Simplex Electric Company.
When the 1904 Simplex appliance catalog depicting toasters arrived (a purchase from an online auction), I was quite excited to see what these pre-Nichrome toasters looked like. Were they ornate, delicate appliances with claw-and ball feet? The first illustrations in the catalog of their chafing dishes and tea pots (illustration at right) had my hopes quite high. But the toasters turned out to rather simple (quite appropriate, considering the company name) - but attractive nonetheless; like proto-organisms in the evolutionary lineage of toasters (see illustrations below).
Multi-purpose appliances, like any flatbed unit, the two toasters shown in the catalog differ only in size and wattage required. They were advertised as "Griddle Cake Cookers or Toasters" and the text to describe them reads as follows:
Primarily griddles and not even recommended for home use, these simple Simplex appliances are called "Toasters," toast is mentioned in the ad copy, and can take the place as the oldest known American electric toaster. With "thousands in service," it can be safely assumed that the electric toaster dates back to around 1900 at least.
So, what heating element did these toasters use? They employed an element embedded and sealed in enamel. This method prevented the oxidation of the element, a problem which the open-air Nichrome wire was later able to overcome. An introduction page in the catalog gives a general explanation of the Simplex sealed element, as well as selling the benefits of electric power:
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