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New Inventions ... and Wheels Re-invented

I bring to your attention two wonderful new inventions from the USA: the ‘Transparent Toaster’ and the ‘Hot Water System That Requires No Electricity’.

Notification of this innovation in bread toasting was sent to me recently from a friend in California. Instead of being made entirely of metal, the toaster has glass windows. And here is the astonishing bit: cooking the toast behind glass plates enables the operator to “observe the bread while it is being toasted”, and to activate the pop-up mechanism at “precisely the moment the desired degree of toasting is reached”. This “eliminates under-done or burnt toast”, which are, apparently, the bane of modern life in California, and something that was never possible with the old metal-sided toasters.

Actually, I already have a toaster with this capability and I made it myself. I use it whenever I am camping in the bush, or cooking outdoors at Gwambygine. It consists of a short length of #8-gauge fencing wire, doubled over and twisted together so there is a loop at one end (for hanging on a nail in a nearby tree) and two prongs at the other. On the latter I impale a slice of bread. Then, squatting by the campfire, I hold the bread in the "toasting fork" (as I call it) over the coals, waiting for the tell-tail aroma of singed bread. This triggers me to turn it over. Watching closely, and after another dexterous turn, I end up with the perfect slice of toast, cooked exactly to my specifications. I then apply butter lavishly, while the bread is still smoking, and eat it hot.

In my view this toast tastes better than any other toastal product I have ever eaten in a lifetime of eating toast, irrespective of whether the heat source is electric, gas, solar, wave, tidal or nuclear power. The ultimate in fire-cooked toast using this technology results from using the coals of a mulga-wood fire, and the toasting is done on a crisp, clear morning in the bush, accompanied by bird song, with the sun just peeping over the eastern hills.

I have not calculated the carbon footprint of my toasting fork yet, and may have to withdraw it from service if it turns out to be a major contributor to global warming, but at this stage I am backing it as the machine of the future as well as of the past.

One question remains: will the Californian transparent toaster cook lamb chops, in that famous culinary masterpiece: "Chops a La Batini", once celebrated in the forestry single men's camp in the jarrah country, and now internationally famous? If the thing won't do chops, I don't think I will ever want to buy one. I look forward to a report on this aspect of its performance.

My Californian mate has also sent me word of a video posted on YouTube, demonstrating another wonderful invention - a hot water system that Needs no Electricity!

Demonstrating his machine, the inventor lights a fire, using scraps of wood, which heats a coil in a boiler, and after a while, beautiful hot water comes out the top and can be delivered to a storage tank, or direct to tap, bath or shower. Cold water comes in from the mains, is heated by the wood fire, and emerges as hot water.

I hesitate (for once) to be a smart-arse about this, but if he had come to any forestry house, single men's camp, War Service cottage and most farm houses in the 1960s anywhere in Australia he would have found on the back veranda an apparatus called a "chip heater". They were made by Metters if I remember correctly, and operated on exactly the same principle as demonstrated in the video, although the ones I operated did not have a storage tank, but delivered water straight into the bath (or in one case direct to a shower, but this was extremely dangerous). The fuel for these hot water heaters was wood – usually the scraps and chips from the woodheap, or bits and pieces collected in the bush. I must have lit one hundreds of times during my days in single-men’s camps or behind the huts below a remote lookout tower. Some were more temperamental and trickier than others, especially those without a roof-top storage tank; if the hot water was being sent straight to the shower head, you had to get the water running through the firebox or coil at exactly the right speed or you would end up either with superheated steam or ice water. A loss of water pressure could be deadly when you were under the shower, and you needed always to be on the alert, ready to spring to safety if the water suddenly reached boiling or dropped to freezing point.

But at the same time, they were very efficient – a scrap of newspaper, a few chips and a thimble-full of kero, and you could get hot water almost instantly, and a really nice hot bath.

A chip heater of the old school, the fire door open, ready for action

Older chip heaters could be temperamental. Each had its own personality, and if you had to depend upon it for a while in some camp or other, you needed to befriend it. Some were tougher than others to light and operate. We were still using one at the homestead at Mt Gibson Station well into the 21st Century, although my brother would routinely put too much fire in it, and burn it out. Once to my horror I found him feeding it with sandalwood. [My brother was a doctor and a good one, but at that time could not tell one tree from another].

The other memorable thing about the chip heater was that it was noisy: you could hear the fire roaring in the firebox, the water bubbling and the steam hissing – sounds that if they became too intense warned of imminent explosion. I never heard of a domestic chip heater exploding, but it was something we all believed possible.

My wife and her mother lived for some years in a War Service house in the Perth suburb of Scarborough. This suburb was full of War Service houses, all built during the late-1940s or early 1950s and all with chip heaters in the bathroom at the end of the back veranda. There was no storage tank. They were plumbed straight to the bath. In the kitchen, hot water was heated in an enormous black kettle that was permanently on the wood stove. In the washhouse it was necessary to boil water in a copper. When they came up from the farm in 1952 and moved into their new house there was a huge dead jarrah tree in the front yard. My mother-in-law Jessie arranged for her brother Mick to come up from the farm, fell the tree and cut it up into footblocks, which he did with axe and crosscut saw. Jessie then did all the wood chopping. The old jarrah tree kept them going with chips for the hot water system (and wood for the kitchen stove, the copper and the open fire in the lounge room) for years ... it was frugally husbanded.

One of the chip heaters I most appreciated was the one serving the changerooms at the football clubhouse in Pemberton, which we used after training and matches. In my memory it was always chilly, dark and raining when we finished training in the depths of a karri forest winter, and the hot water was a great luxury. The chip heater had been custom-built for the football club by the plumber from the State Sawmill (this was Bobbie Bradley, who was also a member of our football team) and was made out of a 44-gallon drum. It did not actually burn wood chips, but substantial karri mill-ends. These are hard to get going, but once alight, burn with great ferocity. The contraption did actually blow up occasionally, but mostly delivered greatly-appreciated hot water to the muddied oafs in the showers.

Incidentally, the Pemberton football club hot water system was lit and tended by Griff Lunn. Griff had been the Bush Boss for State Sawmills for decades before his retirement, and was a famous local identity and supporter of the local footy team. His other volunteer job in retirement was Lolly Pop Man on the crossing outside the Primary School in the main street of town, and it always amused me to see him bossing around the little kids, making them cross the road in a disciplined fashion. I would remember the time he had been in charge of about 50 fallers, log haulers, swampers, engine drivers and navvies, including some of the toughest men in the karri country, producing a hundred tons a day of logs for the mill. The kids all loved being bossed around by Griff; it was a Pemberton tradition, passed down from their grandfathers.

I don't want to be sarcastic, and I applaud this Californian inventor for his innovative approach to creating Hot Water Without Electricity, but this seems to me one of the best demonstrations I have seen for some time of a wheel being re-invented, or at least taken to a new level of sophistication. On the other hand, who knows where electricity prices are going to end up, so maybe we will all have to revert to chip heaters before too long.

Thinking about the Transparent Toaster and the apparatus that makes Hot Water Without Electricity, reminds me about a further range of essential items for the modern home about which I recently became aware.

I found these in a glossy catalogue that arrived in our mail box one afternoon, and which I leafed through over my pre-dinner drink. This particular brand of catalogue has arrived in my letter box on a regular basis for about 15 years after I once innocently ordered something from it (a monogrammed toothbrush, I think, and I am still not sure why I wanted it), not knowing as I did so that it would doom me to decades of catalogues, each containing more amazing items than the last.

There is an amusing aspect of all this. The catalogues always come addressed to Ruby, one of my late dogs, whose name I used when making the initial order. The same dog receives regular correspondence from the New York Review of Books, Entertainment Masters and the Guardian Weekly ("Dear Ruby" the letters always commence). I loved Ruby and it pleases me to be still dealing with her mail after all these years.

This time the mail order people have gone beyond the ridiculous (my all-time favourite was the bowler hat with antlers) to the redundant. For example, they are now advertising an inflatable chair with inbuilt speakers ($59.99). This can be ordered with a "beer bell" ($9.99) which the man depicted sitting smugly in the inflatable chair can ring when he wants his wife to bring him another beer. Merely thinking about me trying this on in our house sent a shiver of apprehension up my spine.

Then there was the 'BBQ Branding Iron'. This comes with a complete set of all the letters of the alphabet which can be fitted into the head of the iron, like a sort of old-fashioned hot-metal printing press, heated up, and then used to brand your steak or chops with a four-letter word of your choice while cooking it on the barbeque. Several words that might be used spring to mind, none of which would generate mirth around our BBQ.

But for the man (or woman) who already has a transparent electric toaster, an inflatable chair with speakers, a beer-bell and a BBQ branding iron there can only be one thing left to purchase. This is the Platinum Nose-hair Trimmer. Only $39.99 and solid platinum, they say. This seems like great value to me, given that the machine is "easy to clean", let alone its worth on the open market, melted down if it is actually platinum. However, I have to say that in the picture it looks more like stainless steel:

The Platinum nose-hair trimmer. Either that or an instrument of torture from the days of the Gestapo

The catalogue also tells me that if I (or rather Ruby) give them the name and address of someone Ruby thinks might like to be on their mailing list, Ruby will receive a "special gift" (not identified, but apparently extremely valuable and useful). So, if you are interested, send me your name and address and I will forward it on. It is OK to use the name of an ex-dog. Who knows, the special gift might be the "Cufflink Storage Display Case, with glass window and polyester inner", allowing the display of your cufflink collection, a steal at $49.99.

We are truly the lucky generation to have access, at the flip of a credit card, to such life-enriching items.

Mind you, I am reminded of that story by the comedian Woody Allen: Woody recollected the tragic day in his youth when his father came home from work, despondent, and said that he had been replaced by a machine that could do everything he could do, only better. The thing that really upset Woody was that his mother went straight out and bought one.

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