Curious Questions: Who invented the bread maker?

Making bread by hand is rewarding, but inconsistent — unlike the stuff you'll get from a decent automatic bread maker. Martin Fone ponders how such a machine, with its artificial kneading, came into existence.

Bread is one of our oldest and most popular of foodstuffs, with British households buying the equivalent of twelve million loaves a day, of which just over nine million are white. There is a bewildering array of choice with over 200 different kinds of bread produced in the UK, ranging from butter-rich brioche and crisp baguettes to farmhouse loaves and focaccia, soft ciabatta and crumpets to chapattis and flaky croissants, all made possible courtesy of the vast range and quality of British flour. The aroma and taste of freshly baked bread is one of life’s little pleasures. Indeed, Robert Browning was moved to remark that ‘if thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens’ (Paracelsius, 1835).

The market may have been sliced up between the large bakeries (around 80% of UK bread production) and in-store bakeries (17%), but a very distinctive lockdown trend has been the increase in the number of people making their own bread at home. In the twelve weeks up to June 14, 2020 The Grocer was reporting a surge in sales of ingredients required by the home baker, flour up by 113.2%, other baking ingredients by 72.6%, baking fruits by 72.3%, and sugar by 49.7%. Such was the unanticipated demand for flour in 1.5kg bags that UK millers had to work around the clock to replenish supermarket shelves.

With Warburtons on my mother’s maternal side and my paternal uncle a baker, I have always considered that there were bread maker’s genes in my DNA waiting for the opportunity to rise to the top. When a bread making machine, deemed surplus to requirements, became available, here was the chance for me to join the merry throng of lockdown bakers, even though the rear lights of that bandwagon have long since disappeared over the horizon.

Following the six-P Rule — prior proper planning prevents poor performance — some diligent internet research unearthed what was confidently billed as the ‘best bread machine loaf recipe’. The recipe was simple enough, a mix of flour, yeast, oil, water, caster sugar, and salt. I poured the mixture into the machine, selected the required program, weight, and crust colour settings and pressed the start button.

The machine leapt into action with a series of frantic whirring noises as it transformed the ingredients into a ball of dough. The kitchen was filled with an enticing malty, yeasty aroma, but I was surprised that the cycle had stopped earlier than I had expected. The mix was unmistakably loaf-shaped, but it had not cooked. Worse still, in heating up the bread maker had triggered the trip switch to the house’s electricity supply.

Undaunted, I tried again but the same thing happened. Determined to produce a loaf, I poured the contents into a baking tin and finished it off in the oven. I am not sure that triple-cooked bread will win the affections of the gastronome in the way that the chip has, but the result was perfectly edible and kept me and the garden birds sated for a couple of days. Sadly, the machine has met its own maker in the municipal scrapyard.

Despite the disappointment, I could not help admiring the machine’s ingenuity and simplicity and wondered whose brainchild it was.

Joseph Lee was born in 1849, the son of slaves in South Carolina. After working as a servant in Beaufort, he served for eleven years in the US Coast Survey as a steward, where he developed his culinary skills. He was fascinated by the process of making bread and quickly recognised that evenly and thoroughly kneaded dough was the prerequisite for the perfect loaf.

Seeing that cooking offered him an opportunity to better himself, Lee took the bold step of opening a small local restaurant while still in his twenties. This did not satisfy his ambitions. In the 1880s he took over the Woodland Park Hotel in Newton, near Boston, a move which proved a great success, the Boston Daily Advertiser listing him as one of ‘Newton’s rich men’ in 1886.

An extension to provide bowling alleys and billiard and pool rooms was opened to the public on May 7, 1890, completing an establishment that was ‘a picturesque structure with gables and towers, dormer windows, high chimneys and wide shady verandas… surrounded by seven acres of well-kept grounds’. It numbered the great and the good of Boston society amongst its clientele.

With America entering a depression in 1893, Lee had to keep a close eye on costs, focusing on a subject he knew well, bread making. Making bread by hand was laborious, delivered variable results and produced a lot of wastage. His solution was to automate the kneading process. On May 7, 1894 Lee secured a patent (No 524,042) for a kneading machine, ‘which will thoroughly mix and knead the dough and bring it to the desired condition without resorting to the tedious process of mixing and kneading the same by hand’.

Powered by a motor, pestles pounded the dough and screw conveyors moved it around the tray so that it was assaulted from all angles. Lee’s patent application stated that ‘the simplicity of construction and operation of the machine is such that it can be supplied at a minimum cost’ saving time, labour and producing a superior product.

So effective was it that it did the work of six men, producing sixty pounds more bread from each barrel of flour than could be made by hand. As to quality, the Colored American magazine declared that ‘kneading done by it develops the gluten of the flour to an unprecedented degree, and the bread is made whiter, finer in texture, and improved in digestible qualities’.

Its efficiency meant that Lee had another problem on his hands – he was producing more bread than his guests could eat. His ingenuity knew no bounds and the following year he had devised and patented a device to mechanise the tearing, crumbling, and grinding of bread into crumbs. These were then used for everything from fried and battered fish to salad croutons and for one of America’s favourite breakfast meals before the advent of cereals: breadcrumbs and milk.

Not content with the action of his kneading machine, he changed and patented the design in 1902 more closely to replicate the movement of the human hand. Eventually Lee assigned the rights to the kneading machine to The National Bread Co in return for shares and a slice of the royalties, while the bread-crumbing machine was sold to The Goodell Company of New Hampshire. By the mid-20th century automated ovens for bread making were widely used by commercial bakeries.

Bread making machine with ingredients prepared for mixing

A self-contained, all-in-one bread making machine for domestic use was a relatively recent concept, though, cooked up by the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company, now Panasonic, following research into the optimal method of kneading dough by Ikuko Tanaka. Launched in 1986, within a decade it was a must-have accessory in many an Occidental kitchen. Lee’s legacy is that all modern bread makers retain a miniaturised version of his original kneading design.

The best thing since sliced bread, you might say.