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Sliced Bread (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

We've all heard the phrase "Its the best thing since sliced bread." But was sliced bread really such a great thing? Yes! Sliced bread was the culmination of a century of technological innovation.

The end of the slice bread story starts with an Iowa Jeweler and peddler named Otto F. Rohwedder, who preferred to be called "Roh." At the beginning of the 20th century, toasters were in vogue, and so Roh often heard on his sales calls to grocers that customers liked toasted bread, but found it difficult to slice the bread so it'd fit into the slots.

The toaster represents the crest of one wave of technological innovation that brought us sliced bread. It began with a huge effort to electrify the nation. Once homes were wired this created a demand for household appliances, one of which was the toaster.

So, propelled by the demands of the toaster, Roh built his first bread slicing machine in Monmouth Illinois. fire consumed his workshop destroying the machine. It took Roh a decade to finance a new model.

A baker in St. Louis, Gustav Papendick, bought the second slicer produced by Rohwedder. He improved the cutting action, but found bakers objected to sliced bread: They felt the loaf would dry out too quickly.

So, Papendick set out to invent a machine that would wrap the bread, and keep it fresh. To do this he needed to keep the sliced bread together long enough so his machine could wrap it. He first tried rubber bands and then metal pins to keep the loaves intact, but both failed. Finally a simple idea hit him: Put the bread in a collapsible cardboard tray, which would precisely align the slices so a machine could wrap them.

This sounds simple, but again a series of technological innovations had to occur: If you are going to have uniform bread trays, you need uniform bread. Here's a few things that happened to give us uniform bread.

First, an engineering genius invented an automated flour mill. No longer was it made by hand, it could now be made in vast quantities. Then the technology for making identical loaves of bread evolved. For example, the first ovens used embers, which cooked the bread slowly and unevenly. Industrial ovens were invented that blew an even steam of hot air past the dough. In addition, the ovens were tunnels where the dough went in one end and out the other so that bread could be mass produced. This produced uniform bread, which could then be sliced automatically.

The problem of the loaf drying out remained. And here another technological revolution saved the day: Plastic came about, providing the perfect moisture-proof wrapper for a loaf.

All of these innovations came together in the time of the St. Louis Baker, Gustav Papendick. His sliced bread made sales in St. Louis jump by a whopping 80%. And most important it gave birth to that phrase "The best thing since sliced bread."

Indeed.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises