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Sliced Bread

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Slices of bread.

This benchmark product for every inventor was the brainchild of an American of German stock. It was something of a miracle, though, that Otto Rohwedder's gift to the world saw the light of day at all.


Rohwedder, a native of Iowa, first filed a patent for a loaf-slicing machine in 1912, when he was 32 years old. He had already realised that his idea would facilitate the mass production of bread, and he was confident enough to sell up his existing business (he was originally a jeweller) in order to fund the development. As it turned out, his efforts to commercialise it made little progress for another fifteen years.

His early difficulties were the result of personal misfortune. In 1915, he developed a kidney disease and was given a year to live. Then, with his demise already two years overdue, his workshop burned down, destroying his prototypes and all his tools. It wasn't until 1922 that Rohwedder recovered his health, and obtained the sound financial backing that would enable him to concentrate fully on the design and refinement of a production machine.

Now Rohwedder ran into a problem with the acceptance of his product by bakeries. The machine worked well enough, but his intended customers didn't believe that they could sell pre-sliced bread, reasoning that it was bound to go stale quicker than an intact loaf. Rohwedder therefore began pursuing an extended concept: a machine that would wrap the bread as well as slice it.

Wonder Bread

In 1928, the Continental Bakery of New York introduced Wonder Bread, an unsliced loaf with a waxed paper wrapper to conserve freshness. The same year, Rohwedder finally persuaded bakeries to adopt his revised invention. Somewhat ironically considering their initial reluctance, there are now multiple claimants of first commercial use. Two of the earliest firms to adopt the machine were bakeries in Battle Creek, Michigan and in Chillicothe, Missouri. Whoever actually came first, the world's first pre-sliced and wrapped loaf was soon on sale.

For about a year, Rohwedder built and sold machines himself, from a factory in Davenport, Iowa. Soon, however, the Great Depression and the inevitability of copying by large and powerful firms persuaded him to sell up. The Continental Bakery acquired the rights to Rohwedder's machine through its new owners (the Bettendorf Company of Iowa) and pre-sliced Wonder Bread was in production by 1930. Its market penetration remains legendary to this day. By 1933, 80% of all the bread sold in the United States was sliced and wrapped, and the product was well on the way towards dominance in other countries, including Britain.

The Best Thing Since...

The phrase 'the best thing since sliced bread' is thought to have been coined at about this time, and was surely meant literally by consumer and shareholder alike. The ironic modern connotation came much later, but not before Rohwedder had established another career as a motivational speaker. He finally died in 1960, 45 years after being advised that he was terminally ill. By this time too, one of his machines was exhibited in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute.

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