If kitchen gadgets are a sign of economic and technological innovation, what can we learn from Thomas Edison's toasters?
According to Witold Rybczynski's Home: A Short History of the Idea, 60 percent of households in the United States in 1927 had electricity. This is around the time Edison's company introduced a line of luxury appliances, including the Edicraft Automatic Toasters. The novelty was that, rather than springing toasted bread out of slots and into the air, the heating coils fell away from the toasted bread (kept in a cage in the center) when finished. Keep in mind this was close to the onset of the Depression and a slew of other, less expensive toasters were being invented. Nobody was impressed and soon Edison went on to other things, like trying to squeeze synthetic rubber from goldenrod plants.
Without denying Edison's inventive genius, the toaster may personify his legacy better than the light bulb. As Bill Bryson writes in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, "Nobody was better (or worse, depending on how you choose to view it) at inventing things that had no obvious need or purpose."
Our kitchens are still cluttered with useless gadgets—electric milk frothers and novelty grills endorsed by former heavyweight boxing champions. As economist Tyler Cowen suggests in his latest e-book, The Great Stagnation, the slowing of innovation, particularly in kitchens over the last eight decades, is a possible indicator of a greater technological and economic plateau. Given Edison's track record with gizmos, maybe that's not an entirely bad thing. Let's hope a future focused on innovations is geared more towards actually raising the standard of living.
Drawing via Albert H. Simmons/Edison Electric AP, 1928. Electric heater. US Patent 1683211.