Early Electric Cookers

The first electric oven was installed in the Hotel Bernina, near St. Moritz in Switzerland, in 1889. Electricity was supplied by a hydroelectric power generator.

In Britain and the United States, electric cookers began to feature in public demonstrations and model electrical kitchen displays at major exhibitions in the early 1890s, including the 1891 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London and the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The companies that pioneered the commercial production of electric cookers included Crompton & Company in Britain and the Carpenter Company in the United States. The heating elements in these early electric cookers took the form of resistor wires embedded in enameled panels. This heating technology was improved in 1893 by the English electrical engineer H. J. Dowsing, who sandwiched the steel heating wires between two panels, creating a safer and more practical design. Crompton & Company began to manufacture and market cookers to Dowsing’s design in 1894. The heating panels were at first placed on the oven sides and later at the top and bottom. The performance of electric cookers benefited from the improvement in heating technology created by the invention of Nichrome (or nickel and chrome) wire by the American Albert L. Marsh in 1905. The boiling plates on the cooktop took the form of radiant coils on fireclay supports, topped by perforated or solid metal plates.

The main problem for electric cooker manufacturers was that there were few electrified homes to sell their products to. Moreover, even fewer homes had a power circuit as well as a lighting circuit. Electric cookers were, and still are, the electric appliances with the highest power rating and, as such, require a dedicated power supply and fuse box. The investment in wiring an electric cooker and the high costs of the heavy electricity consumption were a major disincentive at a time when electric cookers had nothing extra to offer in terms of functionality. Up until World War I, both gas and electric cookers were modeled on the rival solid fuel range. This meant box-shaped ovens with safe-like doors, made of cast iron with a black lead finish. Given the persistence of fears about the safety of gas and electricity, gas and electric cooker manufacturers may have felt that a familiar design would provide a sense of reassurance. Not surprisingly, with such limited sales potential for full-size cookers, manufacturers concentrated their marketing efforts on small, tabletop cooking appliances, such as electric frying pans and chafing dishes. These appliances had the advantage that they could be used in the dining room as well as the kitchen and had no nonelectric rivals.