Let’s Toast

When Detroit inventor George J. Schneider was granted a patent in 1906 for the forerunner of today’s pop-up toaster, he ignited a frenzy among manufacturers.
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Old picture of woman using toaster
Woman demonstrating a General Electric Toaster (Photo by Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

For thousands of years, ever since bread was first made in the Middle East, bakers from the Stone Age up through the 19th century have been fascinated with inventing different ways to serve what has become the most popular accompaniment for almost every meal.

That lofty goal in cuisine was given a boost in 1906 when 35-year-old Detroiter George J. Schneider of the American Electrical Heater Co. registered the first American patent for an electric toaster that he described as an “electric cooker.”

Perhaps the earliest evidence of bread, and possibly toast, was unearthed by scientists at a 9,000-year-old site in Turkey where they found two buildings, each with large stone fireplaces containing chunks of charred breadcrumbs.

Those early bread-makers used flour they made from wild wheat and barley mixed with the crushed roots of plants. They added water before baking it on hot stones around an open fire. The crumbs found in the fireplaces could have been an indication of the efforts by prehistoric foodies to spark up the taste of their bread by toasting it.

Over the centuries, bread was toasted by using sticks, rods, and even spears to hold chunks over open fires.

Earlier attempts by 19th century inventors in England and the United States to toast bread produced patents for devices that were able to warm bread one slice at a time over heated electrical wires. Users, however, had to pay close attention to the toast, as these devices frequently became fire hazards that could burst into flames.

Schematic of toaster
In addition to making life in the kitchen easier, Schneider was a pioneer in connecting multiple appliances via electrical switches. // Renderings courtesy of National Registry

Toaster schematic

That problem was solved for Schneider by two inventors in Chicago. According to records in Harvard University’s Collection of Historical Instruments, around the same time that Schneider was tinkering with his electrical cooker invention, Albert L. Marsh, a metallurgist, and his employer, William Hoskins, a chemist in Chicago, invented a high-temperature resistance wire, or coil, made of nickel and chromium that could be used safely as a heating element suitable for maintaining the 370-degree heat needed for toasting bread.

Schneider’s submission to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office described his creation as an electric cooker with a casing having parallel side walls, an opening in one end, a pair of gratings arranged upon opposite sides of the opening within the casing, and heat conductors arranged in the space between the gratings and the adjacent sides of the casing. Bread slices were exposed to heat radiated through the openings in the grating.

Although there isn’t a record of Marsh and Schneider collaborating on Schneider’s toaster, it’s obvious both were working on their inventions at the same time. Marsh’s wire patent was filed five months before the patent for Schneider’s toaster was granted on July 17, 1906.

Shortly afterward, Hoskins moved his newly formed Hoskins Manufacturing Co. to Detroit. Ironically, while Schneider’s invention touched off a frenzy among dozens of companies and inventors to manufacture commercially viable toasters, the inventor never actually produced one.

Instead, in the years between 1905 and 1929, he went on a prolific run devising different inventions. In that period, he filed applications for 16 patents in the United States and six in Canada for a series of electric-related inventions such as heaters, sad-irons, stands for the irons, an electric branding iron, electric switches, heating elements and conductors for electrical instruments, a glove former, and an electrically heated instrument.

In some cases, he filed new patents for improvements he devised for some of his earlier creations.

The Canadian patents were for inventions like the sad-irons and heaters he introduced in the U.S.

Three years after Schneider’s toaster patent was published, General Electric introduced the D-12 toaster invented by Frank Shailor, recognized as the first commercially successful electric toaster, while in 1921 a Minnesota mechanic, Charles Strite, created the first automatic pop-up toaster, a forerunner of today’s toaster found in homes and businesses all over the world.

While Schneider didn’t follow up on his patent for the toaster, it appears he commercially profited from his branding iron and possibly some of his other electrical inventions. A company he founded, Schneider Manufacturing Co., was described as making “meat branding devices and other tools.”

In the early 1900s, as Schneider churned out patents and inventions, the city earned the title of Detroit the Dynamic, according to Charles K. Hyde of Central Michigan University, writing in the Michigan Historical Review, which was published by the Historical Society of Michigan. From making cigars and locomotives to stoves and agricultural equipment, factories in Detroit were humming with production.

“The city’s industrialists achieved great success and national fame by manufacturing a wide spectrum of goods seldom remembered today as products of Detroit,” Hyde wrote. “The city was home to substantial manufacturers of consumer goods such as shoes, tobacco products, paint and varnish, packaged seeds for flowers and vegetables, beer, pharmaceuticals, heating and cooking stoves, and big-ticket capital goods including ships and railroad cars.”

The city was also home to numerous iron and steel foundries, as iron ore was plentiful in the Upper Peninsula and was easily transported on the Great Lakes to Detroit, especially after the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie opened in 1855. In addition to using their products in the manufacture of ships and railroad cars, a dozen companies making iron stoves earned the city the title of Stove Capital of the World, annually turning out more than 700,000 wood, gas, and electric stoves.

A 15-ton wooden replica of the popular Garland Stove was a fixture at the old Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit until it was destroyed by a fire attributed to a lightning strike in 2011, two years after the state shut down the fairgrounds (today the State Fair takes place annually over Labor Day weekend at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi).

Even as Schneider was at his prolific best — 14 inventions were registered with the U.S. Patent Office during this period — it also was a time of upheaval in his personal life. While The Detroit News’ digital archive contains the 1897 records of Schneider’s marriage license and wedding with his 21-year-old bride, Corrine M. Reynick, the Detroit Free Press archive chronicles her appearance in divorce court in 1906.

“Of all who came to avow their marriages a failure yesterday there was no figure half so attractive as that of Mrs. Corinne M. Schneider who asked to be freed from her husband, George J. Schneider. A stunning blue suit and hat trimmed with autumn foliage helped accentuate the youthful refinement of her face and form,” the court reporter observed.

“We were married seven years ago,” she told the court in an almost inaudible voice, “but about four years ago he, well, he simply began to get tired of his home, it had ceased to be attractive for some reason or other.”

Schneider’s last application for a patent was filed in December 1929; he described his invention as “an improvement in electrical switches on cables that connect electrical appliances, cooking utensils, flat irons, heating devices, and the like.”

Ironically, according to The Detroit News’ archive, that patent appears to have been granted and published posthumously on Dec. 1, 1932.

The last reference to a George J. Schneider in the digital newspaper library record is a story about a Detroit manufacturer who was killed in January 1932 when his car drove off the road at a curve on M-43 and overturned in Barry County.

According to the newspaper report, the 60-year-old Schneider was in the rural county on a hunting trip. He was survived by a son, two brothers, four sisters, and the gratitude of millions of people for contributing ideas and inventions that made their daily lives more efficient and enjoyable.