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From the Stove to the Electric Range

Early Electric Cooking: 1900 to 1920

The first leaders of the electrical industry in the Ottawa area, Thomas Ahearn and Warren Y. Soper, owners of the Chaudiere Electric Light and Power Company since 1887, launched a charm offensive to promote the use of electricity for cooking. In 1892, they prepared a meal at the Windsor Hotel in Ottawa using an oven, a warming bottle and a food warmer designed and manufactured by Thomas Ahearn using patents he had obtained earlier that year. Unfortunately, sources consulted to date do not indicate to what extent these innovations were marketed.

The challenge in developing an electric stove lay in maintaining a balance in cooking temperature: high enough to roast meat, but not so high as to burn other foods. Manufacturers combined two base units: a square box (the oven), to grill and cook food at high temperatures and, above it, a cooking plate on which pots and pans could be placed to simmer food at lower temperatures. A resistor element, used to balance the output of the electric current, was positioned between the two units.

Made from an iron alloy, these early resistor elements were not effective in regulating the electric current, because they frequently deteriorated due to oxidation, increasing the risk of damage to other components. The addition of nichrome (a combination of nickel and chromium) improved the element’s performance at very high temperatures because the resulting alloy did not oxidize upon contact with air.

The shape and structure of cooking plates evolved over the years to be either open or closed, and roughly fifteen to twenty centimetres in diameter. Initially, open cooking plates had wires coiled in a mould inside a ceramic disc, and there were three temperature settings: low, medium and high. However, the uneven heating of the cooking plate, the variation in size and shape between the cooking plate and pots and pans, and splashes of grease and liquid, caused the elements to break down regularly. In the 1930s, a drip pan placed below the open plate to catch grease and liquid spills from the cooking surface was adopted widely. Meanwhile, the Calrod element, marketed by Hotpoint during the same period, was made from an aluminum and steel alloy, thus making it better able to withstand high temperatures as well as damage from humidity and oxidation.

Initially, closed cooking plates were made from nichrome wires placed inside an iron disc or wrapped between insulating sheets made from mica. However, the instability of the wires and disintegration of materials caused power failures. Around 1913, General Electric developed a process to strengthen the wires by insulating them with magnesium oxide then sheathing them in pressed steel.

Cooking plate, Simplex
Electric Company,
circa 1908 (CSTM 1992.0879)

The Simplex cooking plate (1992.0879), produced around 1908, consists of a ten-centimetre cast-iron disc mounted on a saponite support used as a non-conducting element. A ceramic lever controls three heat settings. The lug is characteristic of the era, when electric wall outlets were rare in homes. Limited functions, the fragility of the elements and poor electrical output eventually led to the appliance’s disappearance from the market around 1917.

Simplex Electric Company,
circa 1910
(CSTM 1992.0876)

Most likely created from various components with independent functions, the small Simplex electric stove (1992.0876), though manufactured around 1910, illustrates the models produced in foundries in the nineteenth century, with a cast-iron box accommodating the oven. However, the overall construction heralded modern features, including the double-walled oven insulated with asbestos, a heating surface about eight centimetres above it, porcelain control knobs, and three disc-shaped nickel-plated copper cooking plates, the largest of which could be used as a griddle, and a grill for meat or bread, each plate having fasteners to secure cooking pots. This arrangement facilitated cleanup and no doubt contributed to the appliance’s popularity.

Electric ranges used in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario, during a banquet celebrating the town’s connection to the Niagara Falls power system, 1910 (CSTM/Ontario Hydro HP1354)

Buffet stove, Copeman
Electric Stove Company,
circa 1912 (CSTM 1992.0761)

Covered in asbestos and rolled metal, the wood-construction Copeman buffet stove (1992.0761), manufactured around 1912, is topped with two closed ceramic heating plates each containing a nichrome element. Innovations included aluminum panels to insulate the oven, and thermometers to measure the heat produced.