Antique Incubators

Chicken or the egg: incubators complicate old argument
Jim Lacey
June 2000
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Advertisement for the Sure Hatch Incubator Co., circa-1911
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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 Interestingly enough, these old, primitive, outdated, low-tech units were capable of maintaining correct incubation temperatures (102-103 degrees) for up to three weeks, and all that was accomplished without any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.

From Springfield, Ohio, came the Buckeye No. 1, a rather primitive 100-egg unit. Eggs were turned by hand, and humidity was also controlled manually, probably by sprinkling water over the eggs. The temperature is controlled with an "X" shaped steel thermostat on an adjustable rod. That, in turn, is hooked to a long, counter-weighted rod acting on a "hat." The hat moved up and down in response to heat in the box. As the box cooled, the hat dropped down over the boiler exhaust, causing it to warm the water more.

Warming inside the box would cause the hat to lift, letting heat go out the chimney, as it were. On this outfit, most of the work was done by hand, as evident by the mess left inside for cleaning (lots of old eggshells in there). Apparently, though, the Buckeye must have worked well enough, as it was used until 1934 when it was wrapped (in newspapers bearing that date) and stored.

The incubator's operation was simple. A day or so before setting eggs, the unit would be fired up and adjusted. After it was filled with eggs, the wait was on. During the next three weeks, the eggs were turned, and the temperature and humidity monitored. Farmers hoped for a hatch rate of 80 to 85 percent, probably as good as the old hens could do. Claims were made that a batch could be hatched on a gallon of kerosene. (Obviously, the box was well insulated.)

Later, electricity came to the farm, replacing kerosene as a heating fuel. Electricity was easier to control, and more reliable. Not too long afterwards, chicks could be ordered via mail, with live delivery guaranteed from commercial hatcheries.

About that hatch rate of 80 to 85 percent: Rotten eggs were given to children to dispose of. Those of us who have been exposed to rotten eggs are aware of the unique fragrance they possess, making a skunk sweet-smelling in comparison. A neighbor tells about when he, as a child, was given unhatched eggs to dispose of. Taking them to a rock pile northwest of the house, he threw them at various targets on the pile. Later that day, a slight northwest breeze arose, making it very unpleasant for his mother, who was canning peaches in the house. So it goes! FC 


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