Chicken or the egg: incubators complicate old argument
Advertisement for the Sure Hatch Incubator Co., circa-1911
Saving historical relics, even items as mundane as antique incubators, can lead one down interesting paths. So, come along and learn about an interesting farm "tool" of the early 20th century. Way back when, "egg money" was used to buy staple items: Salt, sugar, coffee, flour and the like. First, though, came the eggs, then the chickens, then the eggs again. To avoid a debate here, let us go on to incubators. After all, where are you going to find a setting hen big enough to handle 100 to 400 eggs?
First of all, eggs were candled: That is, candled eggs were passed in front of a small hole in a box with a light bulb or candle behind it. The fertile eggs would be kept; the non-fertile ones sold, or eaten.
Incubator manufacturers were numerous, as is shown in the Spring issues of the 1911 Farmer and Breeder, a weekly out of Sioux City, Iowa. Cyphers Incubator Co. was urging farmers to get into the $1 billion-a-year poultry business (Not giving a time frame for the billion dollars, though ... ) "Old Trusty" would come to you for less than $10, along with a 10-year guarantee. $7.55 would buy a Belle City Incubator out of Racine, Wis. The X-Ray, Wayne, Neb., was another, followed by the Ray O from Blair, Neb.
Antique incubators were handsomely finished, often built with redwood, and could sit inside nicely. A small boiler containing a few quarts of water was heated with kerosene. The heated water was piped around inside the box through pipe or tubing. Smaller units saw eggs turned by hand; in larger units, moveable grids allowed easy turning of the eggs. Interestingly enough, these old, primitive, outdated, low-tech units were capable of maintaining correct incubation temperatures (102-103 degrees) for up to three weeks, and all that was accomplished without any chips, transistors, or solid state relays. Here one is reminded of the space shuttle, which routinely launches a few weeks late. Isn't technology wonderful?
The large, 400-egg Charters unit was manufactured in Santa Cruz, Calif. How it wound up in southeastern South Dakota is anyone's guess. This unit employed a bellows-type thermostat, controlling a shutter on the kerosene burner to either raise or lower the box temperature. This unit also has a tray to hold water, maintaining correct humidity. Grids were used to turn the eggs.