Which came first, the chicken or the egg? We can’t answer that question, but we do know that the hen predated the incubator. The history of chickens (Gallus domesticus) is not completely clear, but the domestication of chickens probably occurred about 6000 B.C. and can be traced back to wild species living in the jungle.
One of the early influences of chicken domestication was cockfighting, which led to the distribution of fowl around the world. Many Bible verses refer to chickens. The breeding and selection of chickens over the centuries have resulted in some 350 combinations of physical features known today. The purebred fowl of today are basically the same as they were 100 years ago, while the commercial chicken industry is constantly developing, through science, a fowl that produces nutritious meat and eggs with extreme efficiency.
For centuries, chickens propagated and increased the number of the species in natural ways. That is, the rooster fertilized the hen’s eggs, the hen laid eggs, she became “broody,” made a nest, laid a “clutch” of 10-12 fertilized eggs in a nest and “set” on them for 21 days (keeping them at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, turning them several times a day and maintaining a constant humidity). After all that, chicks were hatched.
The hen takes several days to lay a clutch of eggs in a nest, but chick development begins with incubation, thus, all of the chicks in the clutch hatch within a day or two of each other. The hen usually remains on the nest for about two days after the first chick hatches. During that time, the chicks feed by absorbing their internal yolk sac.
The state of being “broody” is controlled by instinct, hormones and lighting conditions. A broody hen will fiercely guard her clutch of eggs and her chicks after they hatch. She keeps them warm and leads them to food and water, but returns to the nest at night to keep them warm and guard them.
As early as 750 B.C., the Egyptians discovered the technique of artificial incubation. If the hen were kept from “brooding,” they reasoned, she could lay more eggs. A modern, well-nourished, healthy hen in a proper environment is capable of laying an average of 265 eggs a year. A hen’s egg-laying ability is automatic and requires no rooster to be present.
One of the first recorded methods of incubating was to use the heat of rotted manure to warm the eggs. Later the Egyptians used a method whereby they used a cylindrical building with a fire at the bottom. An inverted cone was partially covered in ash and a basket of eggs sat on top of the ashes. Mechanical incubating was invented in 1749 by Rene Reaumur in Paris, France. The first U.S. incubator patent was granted in 1844. In 1879, a coal lamp incubator was created by Lyman Byce.
For decades, farmwomen supplemented farm income by selling eggs and chickens (there were even times when chickens saved the farm from bankruptcy). The women would encourage a hen to brood (or “set”) by putting one or more glass eggs in a nest. These, along with fertilized eggs, often served as a signal to the hen that the time was right to brood the nest. When the hen began to set, the glass eggs were removed and replaced with fertilized eggs for the hen to incubate.
Managing the chicken flock with several hens brooding at different times was a time-consuming task for the farm wife. The efficient incubator was a godsend. Many chicks could be hatched at the same time in a basement or back room.
With the advent of the incubator and its possibilities, companies across the nation geared up to manufacture the new device. Various processes and mechanisms were invented to take the place of the hen. Some of these inventions were successful; others were not.
Born in Germany in 1830, George Ertel moved to Quincy, Illinois, in 1856. At first he worked as a cabinetmaker, but he later invented a hay press, and in 1868, started making hay-baling machinery.
In 1892, Ertel invented and patented a complete line of chicken incubators and brooders. His invention of the hot water incubator, using a kerosene lamp and a water reservoir, guaranteed even heat throughout the cabinet to incubate the eggs of chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. The George Ertel Co. guaranteed that the Victor incubator would stay warm and hatch fertile eggs. The system used a heat lamp, warm water, a wafer regulator and trays designed to hold eggs properly.
Ertel would ship complete incubators anywhere in the U.S. The shipping crate included the double-walled box, four legs, trays, a thermometer, a kerosene lamp and a shelf to hold it, a water reservoir, the wafer regulator and bars, and a booklet detailing incubator set-up procedures and specific information on taking care of fertile eggs and young chicks. In 2014, one of these crates was found unopened in the basement of a Quincy residence. That incubator is now on display in our 1930’s Ag Museum.
The directions for setting up and operating the Victor incubator were clearly outlined in a booklet that was included in the crate. Step-by-step directions were given on attaching the legs, fastening the lamp shelf, installing the heater and placing the trays at the proper level inside the cabinet. The instructions described how to fill the heater with water, adjust the wafer regulator and heat up the machine.
The company suggested that the lamp be filled with the best 150-degree test oil, and recommended that the wick be trimmed properly. After heating the incubator for 24 hours and seeing that the damper valve had allowed the inside chamber to reach and maintain a temperature of 102 degrees, the owner could fill the trays with fertilized eggs.
Fresh air is supplied between the two walls of the machine and diffused into the various parts of the machine to purify the air in and around the eggs. It also absorbs impurities and gasses and passes them out of the ventilators.
The booklet contains extensive information on testing the eggs. Great care must be taken in selecting the eggs to be put in the incubator. “Select only clean eggs: A dirty egg, or one with oil or grease on the shell, will not hatch. The more extensive the range, the more vigorous the stock and the better vitalized is the egg produced, provided there are sufficient males, which should be one at least for every ten hens.”
The instructions explain that all of the eggs put into the incubator should be tested by holding them next to the hole in the chimney of the lighted lamp and they should be observed to be perfectly clear. (Today we could call that process “candling.”) On the seventh day, the eggs should be retested. Those that are not fertilized or partially fertilized will appear as stale and should be removed.
The booklet continues, “After the fourth day, the eggs should be cooled once every day from five to 30 minutes by removing the tray from the machine and placing it on top of the incubator” (the cooling mimics the hen getting off the nest to obtain food and water). It advises turning the eggs end for end or front to rear when placing the tray back into the machine. After the 18th day, the eggs no longer need to be turned.
The Victor incubator provided a tray underneath the egg tray. As the eggs hatched, the chicks would move to an opening in front of the tray and drop down onto the “chick drawer.” The drawer provided a warm place for the newly hatched chicks to dry. Very shortly the hatched chicks would need to be moved to a brooder or to some warm place designed for the motherless young.
It requires the same length of time to hatch an egg in an incubator as it does in the natural way: For chickens, 21 days; duck and turkey eggs, 28 days; goose eggs, 30 days.
A pre-1900 Ertel booklet even gave the formula for chick feed: Take cracked or ground corn and sift through a sieve made of ordinary wire screen. Mix the coarse and fine meal that passes through the screen with sour milk to form a paste. Baking soda should be added to counteract the sour milk. The whole mash should be salted to taste and baked as brown as Johnnycake in an ordinary oven. Apparently, the chicks loved it and it produced very few bowel complaints.
The Ertel Co. packed a few caveats along with their incubators:
1. Don’t expect 100 percent hatches; we don’t claim it, neither does the hen.
2. Don’t forget to keep the lamp in good shape and the wick trimmed.
3. Don’t expect big hatches from poorly vitalized eggs. The fowl that has plenty of good yard room are the ones that give the hatchable eggs.
We must remember that these instructions were developed for use by the farm wife in the late 1890s. This was the best advice known at the time. Ertel’s incubators and brooders were designed for small- and medium-sized chicken operations and, specifically, for ease of use by the farm wife.
Full production of the Victor incubator must have started immediately after 1892. In a Jan. 19, 1904, article, the Quincy Daily Herald published an interesting story about the Ertel company, its incubators and brooders. The article included a letter written by an R.M. Curtis, secretary of the Model Poultry Farm and concessionaire, St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904.
The letter informed the Ertel Co., “The board of directors has unanimously adopted Victor incubators and brooders for exclusive use in our World’s Fair Farm.” The Ertel products had been selected over many manufacturers across the nation who had submitted their products for inclusion at the World’s Fair and were anxious to secure the contract.”
“The Model Poultry Farm has a large space right next to the Boer War exhibit. It is in the hands of practical and experienced men, and it is proposed to make it the most pretentious chicken exhibition that has ever been seen in this or any other country. The Ertel company contract to run incubators that will turn out from 100 to 1,000 chickens a day – that is from 30 to 60 machines, 200- to 400-egg size, will be employed. They will also run their brooder so that visitors will be enabled to watch the complete process of chicken-hatching and raising from the minute the egg is placed in the incubator until the tender broiler is laid before you on the dinner table.”
Another display at the Model Poultry Farm, the Herald reported, was considerably less charming. “One part of the show that will appeal to everyone who has sporting blood in his veins will be the meeting of game birds in the pit. It is intended to have daily cockfights, but in order to observe the human laws, the spurs will be padded so the birds cannot kill one another.
“It is expected that there will be birds secured from all foreign countries, making a most extensive and unique exhibit.
“There will also be a restaurant in the enclosure where chicken will be served in every imaginable style. Then it is the intention to sell the little chicks, after they grow large enough, put up in pretty boxes as souvenirs. Men, women and children will be held by the exhibit. Millions of people will pass through the farm during the fair. They will stare at ‘Quincy’ in big black letters over the incubators and wherever they turn. It is difficult to conceive a better advertising for Quincy and the incubator company.”
The incubation of eggs from nature’s way, with a hen and a clutch of 10-12 eggs, to today’s artificial industrial incubators, holding 124,416 eggs at one time, is an amazing story. FC
Don McKinley, a retired school principal, grew up on a farm in southwest Iowa. He has created a museum of 1930s-vintage farm collectibles at his home in Quincy, Illinois. Contact him at 1336 Boy Scout Rd., Quincy, IL 62305; email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his page on Facebook at 1930’s Ag Museum.