Otto Rohwedder and the greatest thing

How does one describe greatness and its many orders of magnitude? We can say something is simply great, or add a definitive-article time factor and say it is the greatest. Or we can include a comparison such as, American Simone Biles is the greatest gymnast since Romania’s Nadia Comaneci. If we want to be less specific we can fall back on a cliché and say it is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Except that there is nothing vague or uncertain about that otherwise seemingly trite saying. The first loaf of pre-sliced bread to be offered for sale to customers emerged from a machine conceived by Otto Rohwedder on 7 July 1928, in the small mid-west American town of Chillicothe, Missouri, in a bakery owned by Frank Bench.

Rohwedder’s machine “and its conveyor system are electric in operation, being driven by a small motor,” says the EDN engineering website. It cut loaves into 29 even slices and could process 1,000 loaves an hour.

A man with glasses wearing a cardigan
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Otto Frederick Rohwedder was born on 6 July 1880, in Des Moines, Iowa, and grew up in Davenport, Iowa.

An article on the Lemelson-MIT website, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains that Rohwedder entered the Northern Illinois College of Ophthalmology and Otology in Chicago, and received a degree in optics in 1900.

Instead of pursuing a career in medicine or science, however, Rohwedder went to work as a jeweller, eventually owning three jewellery stores in St Joseph, Missouri.

In 1916 he sold his stores to raise capital, “convinced that he’d had a brilliant idea”, and moved back to Davenport, Iowa.

The Lemelson-MIT article says Rohwedder had been working on his idea since around 1912, “a bread slicer that would automatically cut loaves of bread into slices for consumers”.

“He worked on several prototypes, including one that held a sliced loaf together with metal pins. This model and several others would prove unsuccessful, but his biggest challenge came in late 1917 when a fire destroyed Rohwedder’s design blueprints at a factory that had agreed to build his first slicing devices.”

Despite the loss of his work, and the enormous financial setback, Rohwedder continued to refine his design. One of the main criticisms of his product came from bakers who complained, rightly, that sliced bread would go stale more quickly than whole loaves.

By 1927 he came up with a solution: his machine would slice the bread loaves and also enclose them in heat-sealed wax-paper wrappers.

An article published by the Smithsonian Institution says that after about “six months of heavy use” at Bench’s Bakery, Rohwedder’s bread slicer fell apart.

The Smithsonian has in its collection Rohwedder’s second machine, which was used “to slice loaves of fresh bakery bread at Korn’s Bakery, in Rohwedder’s home town of Davenport, Iowa, beginning in late 1928”.

Bread-slicing machine
Bread-slicing machine. Credit: National Museum of American History

The flow-on effects of Rohwedder’s machine were many. EDN says that “within five years of the bread slicer’s invention, American bakeries were selling more sliced than unsliced bread”.  Lemelson-MIT says another recent creation, the pop-up toaster, was a beneficiary. 

A 2002 paper published by the North American Agricultural Biotechnology Council says “the Peter Pan peanut butter company observed that the introduction of sliced bread greatly increased the consumption of peanut butter”. 

In 1932 Rohwedder was granted a patent for a “Machine for Slicing an Entire Load of Bread at a Single Operation”.

The following year, however, with the country in the grip of the Great Depression, he sold his rights to his invention to an Iowa-based company, Micro-Westco, and went to work as an executive in its newly formed bakery machine division.

Lemelson-MIT says he became known as “the father of sliced bread”, and was “invited to speak to groups around the country”.

Otto Rohwedder retired from Micro-Westco in 1951 and moved with his wife, Carrie, to Albion, Michigan. He died in Concord, Michigan on 8 November 1960.

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