Why a 1949 toaster is still smarter than any sold today

My colleague Tom once introduced you to a modern toaster with two seemingly ingenious buttons: one to briefly lift your bread to check its progress, and another to toast it “a little more”. I respectfully submit that you shouldn’t need a button at all.

It is because in 1948, Sunbeam engineer Ludvik J. Koci invented the perfect toaster, a toaster where the simple act of placing a slice in one of its two slots would result in a delicious piece of toast. No buttons, no lever, no other input required. Ditch the bread, get toast.

Some of you may already be connoisseurs who know what I’m talking about: the Sunbeam Radiant Control Toaster, sold from 1949 to the late 1980s. (It goes by many names, including the T-20A, the T-20-B, T20-C, T-35, VT-40, AT-W and even 20-30-AG.) In 2019, the Technology Connections YouTube channel, famous explanation precisely why the antique Sunbeam Radiant is better than yours, and this is possibly the smartest thing you are looking at today.

But if you don’t have time later, I’ll sum it up: when you push a piece of bread through this toaster, it pulls down a series of artfully designed levers that have just enough tension to lower and raise. two slices all in themselves – and there is a mechanical thermostat inside that stops toasting your bread when it’s toasted and ready, NOT after an arbitrary amount of time.

With the Sunbeam, the radiant heat of the bread itself heats a bimetallic strip (one of the simplest types of thermostats) which, being made up of two different types of metals that expand at different speeds, ends up bending towards back to cut the connection and stop the flow of electricity when the toast is done. And here’s the smartest part: when the heating wire shrinks as it cools, this is what sets off the mechanical chain reaction that lifts your bread. Here’s how Sunbeam describes it in the toaster official service manual:

The rise or fall of the bread is obtained by using the energy of expansion and contraction of the wire of the central element. Of course, this movement is very small and is measured in thousandths of an inch, but more than enough movement of the carriage is achieved by a simple linkage which multiplies this movement approximately 175 times.

And this mechanism does not only wear out after almost three quarters of a century of use: there is a single screw under the garbage collector to adjust the thread tension, and that alone is enough to bring many grids back to life. aging bread.

So yes: drop the bread, grab some toast. And as Technology Connections points out, you get toast, whether your bread is at room temperature, chilled, or frozen when you stick it in the appliance.

It also makes it remarkably difficult to accidentally burn your bread by toasting it for too long! Remember the “More” button on Tom’s toaster? The Sunbeam Radiant Control Toaster does this by simply dropping a piece of toast into the slot – it heats the bread to the temperature at which it is browning, which browns the bread slightly more, before triggering the thermostat again. and turn off. itself turned off.

My Sunbeam T-35.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

By now you might have guessed that I wasn’t happy watching a YouTube video – I bought mine on eBay. And then I bought a second and a third, because it turns out that a space age artifact that produces delicious food is exactly the kind of wonderful conversation piece that makes a wonderful gift, too. (Before giving them away, I opened them up and replaced their aging power cords with modern three-prong grounded power cords, as many of them predate even polarized outlets and don’t are not remotely safe by modern electrocution prevention standards.)

There are good arguments that the Sunbeam Radiant Control Toaster is still not perfect. For one thing, nothing reminds you when the toast is done – while these 1275- and 1375-watt toasters are powerful enough, you might as well stick around for a minute or two. (Let your tea steep, take your butter and preserves.)

You’re also not going to toast bagels in it easily, as the thermostat is pointed toward the center of your piece of bread. The frozen waffles are fantastic, but I have to carefully divide the English muffins perfectly in half so they don’t get caught on the guidewires. And while slices of wonderfully crispy square sandwich bread, including thin-cut Taiwanese toast from my local bakery, thick or oblong breads aren’t necessarily suitable. (A large slice of Oroweat or Nature’s Own brioche-style buttermilk may require a quick flipping and re-roasting to get a crisp all over the surface.)

But when it does, which is most of the time, the result is the kind of crispy toast on the outside, chewy and chewy on the inside that my mom tells me she hasn’t had since she left. her own mom’s kitchen.

Only the original variants of the T-20 have this art deco design.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

I admit I never tried in Balmuda, the $ 300 toaster oven where you add a little water to “lock in the internal moisture in the bread before the surface takes on a golden finish.” But I have to wonder if quickly crunching the outside with a dedicated vertical toaster, instead of baking it a second time in a miniature oven, could be a more elegant solution? I own a Panasonic FlashXpress, which often wins awards for best toaster oven, and its perfectly golden slices certainly don’t taste the same as Sunbeam.

I found the T-20B slightly easier to work with than the T-35 or later Vista model. The Vista had a few easy to unscrew riveted panels here.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

If you find yourself in the market for a Sunbeam Radiant yourself, you should know that they are not all quite the same – you can read up on the differences. here and here – and you may have to pay a little. They cost an average of $ 130 on eBay, with fully restored models selling for two to four times more than at auction. (Tim’s toaster too promises to restore your existing Sunbeam for $ 250, although I cannot vouch for their work myself.)

Is it really a lot? Sunbeam T-20 reportedly retailed for over $ 22.50 brand new in 1949. That’s $ 260 in today’s cash, which may explain why no other company has apparently bothered to replicate its fully automatic charms.

This Thanksgiving, I thought I’d toast the ultimate toaster. We may never see him again.

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