Why a 1949 toaster is still smarter than all the toasters sold today

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

That’s because in 1948Sunbeam engineer Ludvik J. Koci invented the perfect toaster, one where the simple act of inserting a slice into one of the two slots would result in a delicious piece of toast. No button, no lever, no other input required. Drop bread, get toast.

I’m sure some of you are already connoisseurs who know what I’m talking about: the Sunbeam Radiant Toaster, sold from 1949 through the late ’80s. (It has many names, including the T-20A, T-20-B, T20-C, T-35, VT-40, AT-W, and even the 20-30-AG.) In 2019, the YouTube channel Technology Connections famously explained exactly why? the antique Sunbeam Radiant Toaster is better than yours, and it might be the smartest thing you’re looking at today.

But if you don’t have the time right now, let me summarize: when you put a loaf of bread in this toaster, it pushes down a series of cleverly designed levers that have just enough tension to lower and raise two slices. himself — and it has a mechanical thermostat inside that stops your bread from toasting when it’s toasted and ready, NOT after any amount of time.

With the Sunbeam, the heat that radiates from the bread itself heats up a bimetallic strip (one of the simplest types of thermostats) that, made of two different types of metal that expand at different rates, bends backwards to disconnect and stop the flow. of electricity when the toast is ready. And here’s the most ingenious part: when the heating wire shrinks as it cools, Which is what triggers the mechanical chain reaction that lifts your bread back up. This is how Sunbeam describes it in the toaster official service manual:

The raising or lowering of the loaf is obtained by using the energy of expansion and contraction of the thread of the central element. This movement is, of course, very small and measured in thousandths of an inch, but more than enough movement of the carriage is obtained by a simple clutch that multiplies this movement approximately 175 times.

And that mechanism doesn’t just wear out after nearly three-quarters of a century of use: There’s a single screw under the crumb tray to adjust the tension of the wire, and that alone is enough to bring many aging toasters back to life.

So yeah: drop bread, get toast. And as Technology Connections points out, you’ll get toast whether your bread is room temperature, refrigerated, or frozen when you pop it into the appliance.

That also makes it remarkably difficult to accidentally burn your bread by toasting it too long! Do you remember the “A little more” button on Tom’s toaster? The Sunbeam Radiant Toaster only does that by dropping a toasted piece of bread back into the slot – it reheats the bread to the temperature at which it browns, browning the bread a little more, before turning off the thermostat and shutting itself down from.

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

By now, you might have guessed that I wasn’t satisfied with watching a YouTube video – I bought my own video 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 also makes a wonderful gift. (Before giving them, I opened them up and replaced their obsolete power cords with modern, grounded three-prong ones, as many of these are even older than polarized plugs and are not remotely safe by modern electrocution prevention standards.)

There are good arguments that the Sunbeam Radiant Toaster is still not perfect. For starters, there’s nothing to remind you when the toast is ready — while these 1275 and 1375-watt toasters are powerful enough, you might as well linger for a minute or two. (Let your tea steep, get your butter and jam.)

It’s also not easy to toast bagels in it, since the thermostat is aimed at the center of your piece of bread. Frozen waffles look great, but I have to carefully split English muffins in half perfectly so they don’t catch on the guide wires. And while slices of square sandwich bread crisp up beautifully, including the thinly sliced ​​Taiwanese toast from my local bakery, thick or oblong loaves don’t necessarily fit. (A wide slab of Oroweat Buttermilk or Nature’s Own Brioche Style may require a quick flip and toast to get all the way crisp.)

But when it works, which it usually does, the result is the kind of crispy, fluffy, and moist-on-the-inside toast that my mom tells me she hasn’t eaten since. she left her own mother’s kitchen.

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

I admit I’ve never tried it a balmuda, the $300 toaster oven that you add a splash of water to so it “holds the inner moisture of the bread before the surface takes on a golden brown finish.” But I have to wonder, is there a more elegant solution to quickly crisp the outside with a dedicated vertical toaster, instead of baking it a second time in a miniature oven? I own a Panasonic FlashXpress, which often takes home the awards for best toaster oven, and the perfectly browned slices definitely don’t have the same flavor that the Sunbeam can offer.

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

If you are looking for a Sunbeam Radiant Toaster yourself, you should know that they are not all the same – you can read the differences here and here – and you may have to pay quite a bit. They go for an average of $130 on eBay, with fully restored models fetching two to four times as much at auction. (Also Tim’s Toasters) promises to restore your existing Sunbeam for $250although I cannot vouch for their work myself.)

Is that actually a lot? The sunbeam T-20 reportedly sold new in 1949 for over $22.50. That’s $260 in today’s money, which may be why no other company has seemingly bothered to replicate its fully automatic charms.

This Thanksgiving, I thought I’d make a toast to the ultimate toaster. We may never see it again.