One of most important kitchen items in many American homes is the electric stove, an appliance invented by George Hughes in Fargo in 1905.
He later moved to Chicago where he continued to make improvements on the stove, adding three burners on top in 1909. In 1910, he formed the Hughes Electric Co., and filed his patent application in 1913. I found it interesting that Hughes did not call it a stove in his application, but rather an “electrical heating device.”
General Electric (GE) became interested in the Hughes electric range and began marketing his stoves. In 1918, his company was consolidated with the heating device department of GE and later that year, Hughes merged his company with the Hotpoint Electric Heating Co. to form the Edison Electric Appliance Co., with George as president, a position he held until his retirement in 1940.
Prior to marketing his stove, Hughes had an active and interesting career in North Dakota. He was city editor of the Bismarck Tribune and, later, served as general manager of the Fargo Edison Co. (FEC), the first company to provide extensive and reasonably priced electricity for Fargo residents and businesses.
George Alexander Hughes was born April 17, 1871, in Monticello, Iowa, to Alexander and Mary (Higginbotham) Hughes. Alexander had been a Union officer during the Civil War and was wounded five times. After the war, he moved to Monticello where he studied to become a lawyer, and established his practice there.
Shortly after George’s birth, the family relocated to Elk Point, in the extreme southeastern corner of Dakota Territory. When Alexander was appointed receiver for the U.S. Land Office in 1881, he moved to the capital of Dakota Territory in Yankton. Then, when the capital was relocated to Bismarck in 1883 (Alexander Hughes cast the deciding vote relocating the capitol from Yankton), Alexander and his family moved there to handle legal matters for the Northern Pacific Railroad.
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While in junior high school, George got a job as a paperboy selling the Bismarck Tribune. He graduated from Bismarck High and then attended the University of Minnesota. After graduating with a degree in journalism, he returned to Bismarck in 1895, taking a job as a reporter for the Tribune before being promoted to city editor. George was hired as a reporter for the St. Paul Dispatch in 1896, and in 1898, they sent him back to North Dakota to cover events in and around the Fargo area.
Meanwhile, his father, Alexander, had organized the Hughes Electric Co. (HEC) and began providing electricity to the citizens of Bismarck. In 1894, Alexander was granted a 20-year franchise from the Bismarck City Council “to serve electricity to all the homes in Bismarck.”
Alexander McKenzie, the powerful political kingpin of North Dakota, wanted that franchise to go to someone else, and he persuaded the mayor to veto the Hughes franchise, and the council overruled the mayor’s veto. The McKenzie gang then resorted to other tactics to try and sabotage Alexander’s progress in providing electricity to the residents of Bismarck.
In 1896, Alexander filed a lawsuit and Federal District Judge Charles Amidon issued a restraining order that legally prevented McKenzie’s saboteurs from continuing their action. With their work in Bismarck nearing completion, Alexander began to look for another place that would like electricity brought to their city.
While working for the Dispatch in Fargo in the late 1890s, George contacted his father and told him that the limited electricity provided for the citizens was very expensive and the people were unsatisfied. George then “went before the city council to ask for a competitive franchise” for HEC in Fargo, which was granted to him. For Fargo, the name of the company was changed to FEC and George was named general manager. In 1903, FEC merged with its competitor, Fargo Gas and Light, to become the Union Light, Heat and Power Co.
When Alexander died in 1907, George sold his interest in the company and moved to Minneapolis. There, George “started a cement block manufacturing business” that proved unsuccessful and, in 1908, he relocated to Chicago to freelance “as a manufacturer’s agent for several electrical companies.”
George had developed a workable electric stove oven, but to him a major component was missing — stovetop burners. The problem was that most conventional metals oxidize quickly, causing them to become brittle and break, and those that did not oxidize had a melting point of only 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
In 1906, Albert Marsh invented nichrome, an alloy that is 80% nickel and 20% chromium. The melting point of this alloy is 2,700 degrees, and it does not oxidize or corrode. When heated to red-hot temperatures, nichrome develops an outer layer of chromium oxide, which is thermodynamically stable in air, is mostly impervious to oxygen and protects the heating element from oxidation. It is able to “turn electricity into heat,” with a radiant red glow.
Once George installed nichrome coils into his stovetop burners, he believed he had something that would be in great demand. In 1910, he formed the Hughes Electric Heating Co. and began producing his stoves.
Later that year, he brought several of his stoves to the National Electric Light Association Convention, held in St. Louis, Mo. For George, the show was a great success because he not only received a number of orders for his stoves, but he also sold stock to investors to finance his company.
In 1913, George filed a patent on his “electrical heating device.”
We will conclude the story of George Hughes next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.