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Why a Toaster Manufactured in 1949 Is Still Smarter Than Any Now on the Market

In the past, my colleague Tom showed you a modern toaster with two seemingly smart buttons: one for momentarily lifting your bread to monitor its progress, and another for toasting it "a bit more." In my opinion, you don't need any buttons at all.

That's because in 1948, Ludvik J. Koci, a Sunbeam engineer, designed the perfect toaster, one that would produce a delectable piece of toasted bread just by inserting a slice into one of its two slots. There are no buttons, levers, or other input mechanisms required. Toast is made when bread is dropped.

You may have heard of the Sunbeam Radiant Control Toaster, which was produced from 1949 to the late 1980s and is widely recognized as one of the best toasters ever made. The T-20A, T-20-B, T-20-C, T-35, VT-40, AT-W, and even the 20-30-AG are all variants of the same weapon. This year, a YouTube video known as Technology Connections showed just why the Sunbeam Radiant is better than yours, and it could be the most intelligent thing you see this day.

However, if you don't have the time right now, I'll sum up: There are carefully engineered levers that have just enough tension to drop and raise two slices of bread all by themselves, and a mechanical thermostat within this toaster that stops your bread toasting when it's done, not after an arbitrarily long period of time.


Toasting bread in the Sunbeam causes a bimetal strip (one of the simplest thermostats) made of two different metals to expand at separate rates to bend backwards and cut off the power supply when the toast is done, severing the connection. When the heated wire cools down, it shrinks, triggering a mechanical chain reaction that pulls your bread back to its original position. As Sunbeam explains it in the toaster's official service guide:

The bread may be raised or lowered by using the Center Element wire's expansion and contraction energy. Despite the fact that this movement is measured in thousandths of an inch, a simple connection multiplies this movement nearly 175 times, resulting in more than enough carriage movement.

After nearly 75 years of usage, that wire-tension mechanism doesn't just wear out; there is a single screw under the crumb tray that can bring many ancient toasters back to life by adjusting the wire's tension.

So, if you want toast, just drop the bread. You receive toast regardless of whether your bread is at room temperature, refrigerated, or frozen when you place it in the gadget.

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That also makes it extremely difficult to mistakenly burn your bread by over-toasting it. This button on Tom's toaster is called "A bit more." To achieve this, just place the toasted slice of bread back in the slot and the Sunbeam Radiant Control Toaster heats the bread to the temperature at which it browns before shutting itself off again.

After seeing a YouTube video, you may have guessed that I wasn't content with just watching someone else's. A Space Age relic that creates amazing food is precisely the type of discussion item that makes for an excellent present, too, so I got two more. Many of these predate polarized plugs and are not even remotely safe by current electrocution avoidance requirements, so I opened them up and replaced their power cords with contemporary grounded three-prong ones.

The Sunbeam Radiant Control Toaster isn't ideal, but there are excellent justifications for this. For starters, there's no beep to let you know when the toast is done, but these 1275- and 1375-watt toasters are strong enough that you may as well wait the extra minute or two. As you wait for your tea to brew, prepare your butter and preserves.


Toasted bagels won't be a problem because the thermostat is pointed towards the core of your bread. Using a waffle maker, frozen waffles turn out flawlessly, but English muffins must be carefully split so that they don't snag on the guide wires. While thin-cut Taiwan toast from my local bakery and square sandwich bread from my local bakery crisp up well, thick or rectangular breads may not fit. Depending on the bread, you may need to turn and re-bake a large slice of Oroweat Buttermilk or Nature's Own Brioche Style.

Even though most of the time it doesn't work out for me, when it does, I get a slice of toast that my mom says she hasn't eaten since she left her mother's kitchen.

Balmuda, the $300 toaster oven that "locks in the bread's interior moisture prior to the surface being given a beautiful brown finish," is something I've never tried. While the second baking in the micro-oven could be quicker, I'm wondering whether it wouldn't be better to rapidly crisp up the exterior with a specialised vertical toaster instead. However, my Panasonic FlashXpress, which is frequently named the greatest toaster oven, does not have the same flavor as the Sunbeam.

When it comes to purchasing a Sunbeam Radiant, you should realize that they're not all the same—you can learn about the distinctions here and here—and that you may have to pay quite a little. On eBay, they sell for an average of $130, with completely repaired models selling for two to four times that much. However, I have no personal experience with Tim's Toasters, which claims to be able to restore your Sunbeam for $250.

Is it really that much? In 1949, the Sunbeam T-20 allegedly sold for more over $22.50 new. Perhaps this is why no other firm has attempted to copy its totally automated charms: $260 in today's money.

This Thanksgiving, I'd like to raise a toast to the best toaster ever made. It's possible we'll never see something quite like it again.

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