Yours is probably in the heart of the home, gets used every day and yet is completely taken for granted! We’re talking about the common kitchen cooker, but how recent an invention is it and who got us all cooking on gas – and electric, coal and oil – in the first place?
Thousands of years ago, people cooked their food on open fires on the ground. Eventually, these fires were raised on basic constructions, before the ancient Greeks devised simple ovens in which to bake bread. By the Middle Ages, tall brick hearths – often with chimneys – had come into fashion, with the food being cooked in a cauldron over the fire. The first written record of an oven dates back to 1490 and details one in France built entirely from brick and tile, with a flue.
One of the problems of these early ovens was the amount of smoke they emitted, but by the early 1700s this had begun to change as cast iron stoves became increasingly popular. These ovens, often German designed, were known as five-plate or ‘jamb’ stoves and essentially formed a five-sided, open box. The open side was placed against an opening in the wall on the other side of a fireplace in the next room, with burning wood being pushed into the stove through the opening. In 1800, the American-born Benjamin Thompson – Count Rumford – designed a stove for huge, working kitchens, which became known as the Rumford stove. Incidentally, he is also believed to have established the first soup kitchen!
Oven fuels such as coal and kerosene gradually replaced wood and, in 1826, a British inventor called James Sharp patented a gas oven. An early gas oven was shown at the World Fair in 1851 and, by the early 1900s, the widespread installation of gas across the UK meant gas ovens could be found in most homes. Lovers of the iconic AGA cooker might want to note that it was invented in the 1920s by Gustaf Dalen, a Swedish Nobel Prize winner who had already revolutionised lighthouse technology before losing his sight in a gas experiment explosion.
Electric ovens were first available in the 1890s but really came into their own during the interwar years, with developments in technology such as resistor heating coils. And although we tend to think of the microwave as a late 20th century appliance, its origins in fact go back to 1946! A Raytheon engineer called Percy LeBaron Spencer was conducting research on microwave-producing magnetrons when he realised that the chocolate in his pocket had melted. Further experiments with microwave radiation led him to discover it was capable of cooking food quicker than conventional heating could and the first commercial microwave was marketed just eight years later. The company launched the first domestic microwave in 1967, although it was expensive and took manufacturers years to overcome public fears about radiation.
Today we have more choice than ever as to what cooker to buy, from single, double and compact ovens to AGAs, ranges and electric induction hobs. Your cooker probably depends on your budget and kitchen style, as well as factors such as space, temperature control and heat distribution… but its history remains food for thought!