November 18, 2011
One of the things I originally found charming when I bought my 1850 farmhouse was its circa-1962 General Electric kitchen with coordinating aqua and yellow metal cabinets, appliances and countertops. There was even a full set of matching Fiestaware thrown into the deal. It was all very kitsch, and I loved it.
That was two years ago. Although I still love the retro look, the honeymoon is definitely over for the 60-year-old oven range and me. Alas, looks don’t boil the water or bake the cake. After a couple of failed repair attempts, I have finally come to the conclusion that I need to replace it.
I’m excited to get a stove with the latest technology, but some of what’s currently available doesn’t do much for me. Most electric ranges today have a smooth cooktop surface. The advantage is that it’s easy to clean, but I hate the look and don’t like that you can’t use certain kinds of pots on it (such as enamel-coated cast iron). All the options can get confusing, especially for those of us who zoned out in physics class: there’s induction cooking, convection ovens and dual-fuel ovens, with gas ranges and convection ovens.
How far we’ve come from the first ovens, wood-fired hearths. But how much has technology really changed since then? Here’s a look at some of the highlights in the evolution of indoor cooking.
Ancient times: Ancient Egyptians, Jews and Romans (and probably other civilizations) all employed some form of stone or brick oven fired with wood to bake bread. Some of these designs aren’t too far off from what’s still used today to get a deliciously crisp pizza crust.
Colonial America: Imagine trying to bake a cake without being able to precisely gauge or control the temperature. That’s what our foremothers managed to do with their beehive-shaped brick ovens, which they regulated strictly by burning the right amount of wood to ash and then tested by sticking their hands inside, adding more wood or opening the door to let it cool to what seemed like the right temperature.
1795: Cast iron stoves had already been around for decades, but the version invented by Count Rumford (who is also credited with establishing the first soup kitchen) at the end of the 18th century was particularly popular. It had a single fire source yet the temperature could be regulated individually for several pots at the same time, all while heating the room, too. Its biggest drawback was that it was too large for modest home kitchens.
1834: According to the Gas Museum, in Leicester, England, the first recorded use of gas for cooking was by a Moravian named Zachaus Winzler in 1802. But it took another three decades for the first commercially produced gas stove, designed by Englishman James Sharp, to hit the market. The stoves became popular by the end of that century for being easier to regulate and requiring less upkeep than wood or coal stoves.
1892: It wasn’t long after the introduction of home electricity that electric stoves came into use. One early model was manufactured by Thomas Ahearn, a Canadian electric company owner, whose savvy marketing included a demonstration meal prepared entirely with electricity at Ottawa’s Windsor Hotel in 1892.
1946: An engineer for the Raytheon Corporation, Percy LeBaron Spencer, was doing research on microwave-producing magnetrons when he discovered that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. He experimented further with microwave radiation and realized that it could cook food more quickly than through the application of heat. Eight years later, the company produced its first commercial microwave oven; its Amana division released the first domestic version in 1967. The high price and (unfounded) fears about radiation meant it took at least another decade for the appliances to become popular. Today they’re a fixture in nearly every American home.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.