Curious questions: how did a Swedish headlight genius and the “father of advertising” make the Aga a must-have in the country house?


No English country house is complete, or so it sometimes seems, without an Aga at the heart of the kitchen – but it’s a Swedish invention with roots in a tragic explosion, as Martin Fone discovers .

Housed in the magnificent Stenstorp courthouse, the Dalén Museum has been celebrating the life of one of Sweden’s greatest inventors, Nils Gustav Dalén (1869 – 1937) since 1996. His greatest achievement as managing director of Svenska Aktiebolaget Gasaccumulator – a company you know better as AGA – was to improve headlight technology.

AGA, specializing in the manufacture and distribution of acetylene gas, was one of many companies in the early 20th century to consider using it to power lighthouse beacons. The problem was that a prodigious amount of highly explosive gas was needed to produce light of sufficient quality, making it an expensive and impractical option.

The Dalén Flasher was an ingenious solution, converting the gas into bubbles which were ignited by a perpetual flame. Suddenly, he had reduced his acetylene consumption by 90%, but the light was shining all the time. To counter this, Dalén designed the Solar Valve, a rod that expanded during daylight to cover a valve, shutting off gas flow, and retracted when the light dimmed, allowing the beacon to flash once again. more. He also invented Agamassen, a block containing cement, coal and asbestos that absorbed acetylene so that it could be easily moved. These three inventions meant that lighthouses could now be automated.

1912 was a year of triumph and deep personal tragedy for Dalén. AGA has been awarded the contract to integrate its technology into the 35 lighthouses installed along the newly constructed Panama Canal. In November he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics “for his invention of automatic regulators for use with gas accumulators to illuminate lighthouses and buoys”.

Dr Gustaf Dalen.

In September, however, while we were testing how much pressure a heated gas cylinder could withstand, something went wrong. It suddenly exploded, severely injuring and blinding Dalén as he went to see what was happening. Her brother was to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony on her behalf.

Undaunted, Dalén continued as general manager of AGA and as an inventor, accumulating some 99 patents during his career. His forced convalescence made him appreciate the time his wife spent maintaining and using their old-fashioned stove. He decided to create a cooker that was cleaner, more economical and easier to use.

What Dalén had developed and patented in 1922 was a cooker with a single internal heating unit, a firebrick heated by an open coal-fired flame, which remained alight continuously, a variant of the idea he had used at wisely in the Blinker. Housed inside a cast iron body that efficiently stored heat, it transmitted constant but varied temperatures to its two large hobs and two ovens, relying on the radiant heat it produced rather than manually regulating temperatures through controls and knobs to cook food for long periods of time without burning or drying out.

The AGA cooker first arrived in Britain in 1929 and its popularity grew steadily during the 1930s with 322 cookers purchased in 1931 and 1,705 in 1932, partly thanks to advertising genius and the art of selling by one of AGA’s door-to-door salespersons, David Ogilvy. . The “father of advertising” even wrote this Fortune magazine described as “the best instruction manual ever written”, The theory and practice of selling an AGA cooker (1935).

An Aga Cooker ‘How It Works’ diagram from a 1948 sales brochure.

Salespeople, advises Ogilvy, should “dress quietly and shave well” and never wear a bowler hat. The AGM, he notes, offered the new owner the prospect of “fuel savings, reduced staff, reduced spending on cleaners… removal of chimney sweeps; painting and redecoration are unknown, electric irons and their antics are useless; raids on registry offices for new servants are now a thing of the past”. For the small house, “some of its advantages are divine”, he enthuses. “The AGA is a godsend for the ‘owner cook’. She’s actually his maid.

The AGA was an ambitious product, and there was a certain cachet and, dare we say, smugness in owning one, a feeling that lingers, Mary Berry once said that owning one was “like joining the best club in the country… when you meet another AGA owner, it’s like discovering another friend.

A version of the cooker suitable for the UK market was manufactured at the AGA Heat Ltd factory in Smethwick from 1932. During World War II the British government installed AGAs in munitions factories, centers of communal food and hospitals to facilitate collective catering. The wait for the cookers was such – 27 weeks at one point – that a second manufacturing site, at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, was opened in 1947. Sales soared in the 1950s to around 50,000 units per year, fueled by the introduction of new ranges and colours. palettes, moving away from the mandatory cream in 1956.

Slowly AGA cookers adopted more efficient and convenient energy sources, using oil from 1964, gas from 1968 and electricity from 1985, and even embraced the technological revolution of the 21st century. Most cookers sold today are app-controlled, allowing the owner to set when the cooker should reach optimum temperature and when to shut off and go into sleep mode. On some newer models, the ovens and hotplates can be controlled individually and turned on and off independently.

Nevertheless, a hundred years after Dalén received his patent, some issues regarding AGA cookers have come to a boil. Well-engineered with high-quality materials, AGAs have an average lifespan of forty years, meaning many have a significantly larger carbon footprint than other cookers. A large old-fashioned coal-fired AGA produces nine tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, 35% more CO2 than the average UK house. Even their most passionate advocates admit they’re not the most environmentally friendly.

Ahead of the recent rise in energy prices with the promise of more to come, a survey of AGA owners in 2020 found their top dislike was the cost of running their cookers. The AGA website suggests running costs for their new electric cookers can be between £30 and £40 a week, an estimate that could soon be considered undercooked.

A recent report from Bloomberg UK suggested that AGA removal activity was booming, while on a Facebook group, I love my Aga!, members are now sharing tips on how to save money. energy while operating the device.

As Ogilvy foresightedly observed in 1935, however, AGAnomics is more nuanced than that. Instead of saving on chimney sweeps and servants, modern AGA owners will point out that the versatility of their cooker eliminates the need for other kitchen accessories such as kettles, toasters, microwaves, radiators and ventilation cupboards. It’s sure to be a hot topic of debate in households where the budget is under pressure.

Perhaps AGA’s greatest challenge as it enters its second century is demonstrating its relevance to changing food tastes and cooking styles. Ideal for cooking more traditional and healthier British foods, it is less adept at handling dishes with multiple elements that require timing precision to fit together. He’s unlikely to make an appearance on Masterchef. But whatever their future, AGAs, like kit furniture, bear witness to the impact of Swedish design on the British home.

Julie Harding raises the hot plate of the comfort food that no country house should be without.

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