Mon. Dec 6th, 2021

My colleague Tom once introduced you to a modern toaster with two seemingly ingenious buttons: one to briefly lift your bread to check its progress, and another to toast it “a little more.” I respectfully admit that you do not need a button at all.

This is because Sunbeam engineer Ludvik J. Koci in 1948 invented the perfect toaster, one where the simple act of placing a slice in one of its two openings would result in a delicious piece of toast. No button, no handle, no other input required. Drop bread, get toast.

Some of you are no doubt already connoisseurs who know what I am referring to: the Sunbeam Radiant Control Toaster, sold from 1949 all the way through the late 80s. (It goes by many names, including T-20A, T-20-B, T20-C, T-35, VT-40, AT-W and even 20-30-AG.) In 2019, the YouTube channel Technology Connections became famous explained exactly why the antique Sunbeam Radiant is better than yours and it is perhaps the smartest thing you see today.

But if you do not have time right now, I will summarize: When you stick a piece of bread into this toaster, it pushes down a series of cleverly designed handles that have just enough tension to lower and raise two slices all together. themselves – and it has a mechanical thermostat inside that stops your bread from toasting when toasted and ready, NOT after any time.

With Sunbeam, the heat radiated from the bread itself heats a bimetallic strip (one of the simplest kinds of thermostats), which, made of two different kinds of metal that expand at different speeds, ends up bending backwards to disconnect and stop the flow of electricity when the bowl is finished. And here’s the most ingenious part: when the heating wire shrinks, when it cools, to is what triggers the mechanical chain reaction that lifts your bread up again. Here’s how Sunbeam describes it in the toaster’s official service manual:

Raising or lowering the bread is achieved by utilizing the energy for expansion and contraction of the center element wire. Of course, this movement is very small and is measured in thousandths of an inch, but more than sufficient carriage movement is obtained by a simple connection, which multiplies this movement approximately 175 times.

And that mechanism doesn’t just get worn 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 yes: drop bread, get toast. And as Technology Connections points out, you get toast whether your bread is room temperature, chilled or frozen when you stick it into the unit.

It also makes it remarkably difficult to accidentally burn your bread by toasting it for too long! Do you remember the “A little more” button on Tom’s toaster? The Sunbeam Radiant Control Toaster does this simply by dropping a toasted piece of bread back into the opening – it heats the bread all the way back to the temperature where it is browned, which browns the bread a little more before it triggers the thermostat again and shuts itself off.

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

At this point, you may have guessed that I was not happy watching a YouTube video – I bought my own from eBay. And then I bought another and a third, because it turns out that a space age artifact that produces delicious food is just the kind of wonderful conversation piece that also makes a wonderful gift. (Before giving them, I opened them and replaced their aging power cords with modern grounded tripods, as many of these precede even polarized connectors and are not remotely safe by modern standards of electric shock prevention.)

There are good arguments that the Sunbeam Radiant Control Toaster is still not perfect. First of all, there is nothing to remind you when the dish is done – although these 1275- and 1375-watt toasters are powerful enough, you might as well keep going for the minute or two it takes. (Let your tea brew, take your butter and preserves.)

You are also not going to toast bagels in these lightly as the thermostat is aimed at the center of your piece of bread. Frozen waffles come out great, but I have to carefully split English muffins perfectly in half so they don’t get stuck in the guide wires. And while slices of square sandwich bread are beautifully crispy, including the thinly sliced ​​Taiwan toast from my local bakery, thick or oblong loaves don’t necessarily fit. (A wide slice of Oroweat Buttermilk or Nature’s Own Brioche Style may require a quick turn-and-roast to become crispy all the way across.)

But when it works, which is most of the time, the result is a piece of crispy-on-the-outside, airy-and-moist-on-the-inside piece of toast that my mom tells me she hasn’t had 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 a Balmuda, the $ 300 toaster, where you add a splash of water so it “locks the inside moisture of the bread inside before the surface gets a golden brown finish.” But I have to wonder if it might be a more elegant solution to quickly crisp the outside with a dedicated vertical toaster instead of baking it one more time in a mini oven? I own a Panasonic FlashXpress that often wins awards for best toaster oven, and its perfectly browned slices certainly do not have the same flavor that Sunbeam can provide.

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

If you find yourself in the market for a Sunbeam Radiant, know that they are not all exactly alike – you can read about the differences here and here – and you may have to pay a lot. They go for an average of $ 130 on eBay, with fully restored models fetching two to four times as much at auction. (Tim’s Toasters also promises to restore your existing Sunbeam for $ 250, though I can not vouch for their work myself.)

Is it actually a lot? The Sunbeam T-20 was reportedly sold for over $ 22.50 brand new back in 1949. That’s $ 260 in today’s money, which may be why no other company has bothered to copy its fully automatic charm.

This Thanksgiving, I thought I would toast to the ultimate toaster. We may never see its like again.

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