Competition between Gas and Electricity

By 1920, solid fuel ranges were out of general favor, except in rural areas where gas and electricity supplies were absent. They remained so thereafter, although the Aga stove, invented by the Swedish physicist Gustav Dalen in 1924 and marketed commercially from 1929, has sustained a small but devoted customer base. In Britain, the growing importance of gas as a cooking and heating fuel was confirmed by the 1920 Gas Regulation Act, which changed the basis for gas prices from illuminating value to calorific value. The situation was much the same in the United States, where consumption of gas for lighting fell from 75 percent in 1899 to 21 percent in 1919, when consumption as domestic fuel reached 54 percent. World War I had provided an opportunity to demonstrate the convenience of electric cookers, which were adopted for field canteens. In the intensifying competition between gas and electricity, the gas cooker manufacturers had the upper hand, in terms of both price and performance. In 1915, the American Stove Company of Cleveland, Ohio, had introduced the first thermostat for gas ovens, the Lorrain oven regulator. The British equivalent, the Regulo thermostat, was developed by Radiation Ltd. (John Wright & Company) in 1923 and fitted to the Davis Company’s New World gas cooker, which also featured a slag wool lagging for better insulation and a base flue. Previously, oven controls, like boiling ring controls, had settings that simply expressed the rate of gas flow, with no reference to the temperature produced. Similarly, electric cookers were fitted with mercury current regulators, and this remained so until the early 1930s. A thermometer attached to the oven door showed the effect of the regulator setting. In Britain, the first automatic temperature controller for electric ovens was the Credastat regulator, introduced in 1931.

Gas boiling rings were also much more efficient than electric ones because the electric elements were slow to heat up, compared to the instant heat of gas. The flat electric plates only provided good heat transmission to pans with similarly flat bottoms that maximized surface contact. Electric boiling rings began to improve in the mid-1920s, when enamel-coated, metal-sheathed elements appeared. This design of boiling ring meant that the pan was in close contact with the heating source without an intervening plate. In the early 1930s, the U.S. company General Electric developed a new type of faster-heating radiant ring, the Calrod strip element, which consisted of resistance coils set in magnesium oxide and sheathed with chromium iron. Combined with bimetallic controls, akin to the automatic oven regulators, the new boiling rings were much more comparable in performance with gas burners.

One of the few inherent advantages of electric cookers at this time was variety of size. Plumbing in a gas outlet was more space-consuming and obtrusive than the electrical equivalent, so gas cookers were invariably full-size cookers. People living alone or families in houses or apartments with small kitchens constituted a ready market for smaller cookers. The British company Belling made particular efforts to exploit this market. In 1919, it introduced the Modernette cooker, a compact, lightweight floor-standing cooker, and in 1929 it launched the Baby Belling, a tabletop cooker.

In Britain, the price differential between gas and electric cookers was largely a result of the non-standardization of electricity supply. This meant that manufacturers needed to produce electric cookers specified to meet the range of voltages in use. The construction of the national grid from 1926 eventually removed this disadvantage. Moreover, in 1930, a group of British electric cooker manufacturers agreed to a common standard that reduced the number of options, thus consolidating production. The electricity utilities introduced cheap rental schemes to overcome the purchase disincentives. An indication of the success of these schemes is that rental of electric cookers was more common than buying until 1938. In the United States, with its standardized electricity supply, electric cookers were much cheaper, but the combined advantages of gas cookers gave them a dominant market position in both Britain and the United States. In Britain, about 75 percent of homes had gas cookers in 1939, compared with about 8 percent of homes that had electric cookers. However, as electric cookers accounted for about a quarter of total cooker production, the balance was shifting in favor of electric cookers. In the United States, gas was less dominant because the larger and more dispersed rural population created a continuing demand for solid fuel and oil stoves. By 1930, gas cookers were the most popular type and were found in 48 percent of homes, while electric cookers were found in just 6 percent of homes.