It’s one of the greatest inventions of all time – the electric toaster. An effective, efficient, and time-saving way to make an easy breakfast that can be eaten on the go. According to Wikipedia, Alan MacMasters, the inventor, goes down in history as one of the most influential inventors in the history of, well, all mankind. But here’s the problem: Alan MacMasters didn’t invent the electric toaster. He wasn’t born in 1865, he didn’t die in 1927, and he didn’t attend the University of Edinburgh. Wikipedia’s article on Alan MacMasters was a complete fabrication. It was a hoax.
The Alan MacMasters Wikipedia hoax
From February 2013 to July 2022 when it was finally discovered and deleted, Wikipedia hosted an entirely fictitious article. It wasn’t even a very convincing article, and it was illustrated with an even less convincing picture. But that hasn’t stopped the information from being propagated throughout the internet, news media, and books. Even now (at the time this blog entry is being posted), several days after the Wikipedia article was deleted, Google still happily shows the information that it scraped from Wikipedia. (Update: On August 11, Google’s knowledge panel showed information from an article on hagley.org called “The History of Making Toast” to source the claim that Alan MacMasters invented the toaster.)
Interview with a hoaxer
The creator of the hoax, who has asked not to be explicitly identified, was interviewed and they very kindly provided the following responses to my questions.
Q: Why did you choose Alan MacMasters to be the inventor of the electric toaster? Does the real Alan MacMasters have a particular fondness for toast?
A: It was 6 February 2011. There were 5 or 6 of us together in a first-year dynamics lecture, friends who’d all met through the Aerospace Engineering course at the University of Surrey. The lecturer gave the usual warning about using Wikipedia, but he added an anecdote that his friend had set themselves as the inventor of the toaster.
This piqued our curiosity, and we started searching to see if we could find it. Indeed, the invention of the toaster had been attributed to someone named “Maddy Kennedy.” I jokingly changed it to my mate’s name instead.
Q: Why did you use that picture of yourself? And did you think that anyone would be fooled by it? (Let’s be honest, it’s not very convincing. Except maybe the hair.)
The terribly photoshopped image in question, not taken in 1893.
A: A year later, we were down the pub, remembered what we’d done and checked back to see what had happened. Surprisingly despite a lack of citations, it was still there. Further, a few tabloids had started mentioning Alan as the inventor of the toaster. We joked about how much further it could go and decided to write an article. I uploaded a terribly photoshopped image of myself with a rip to hide my modern clothes. The coiffure, mind you, was 100% real. A couple of my friends protested that the photo looked too fake and felt that it would be taken down immediately. But the absurdity of the photo was just part of the joke.
Q: Did you expect the Wikipedia article to last so long?
A: Incredibly, 10.5 years after the first edit and 9.5 years after the photo was uploaded, it was still there. I don’t think any of us expected it. I also don’t think any of us expected it to have the impact that it did during those 10 years.
It first hit me when I walked into my local Waterstones, grabbed a book on Victorian inventors and found Alan amongst other greats. In the run up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Alan was hailed as a reason why an independent Scotland could be a success. To this day, Scottish Government-funded organizations refer to Alan’s story. Eventually, I devised a background story for MacMasters. The story involved heavily drinking whisky and then accidentally burning bread. His toaster invention would then go on to kill a woman in Guildford, which he casually dismissed because she was “not holding appropriate respect for the power of the electric toaster.” It was farcical.
Many unrelated and unknown people started to take an interest. I’m not sure whether or not they realized it was a hoax. Alan at one point had his own time travel fan-fiction. A Reddit fan page was started. Memes spread. People started posting on twitter things like “fuck them kpop boys im an alan macmasters stan now”. During National Toast Day 2021, Kingsmill (Associated British Foods) photoshopped the torn half of the infamous MacMasters portrait back in. It looked even more ridiculous. At a university in the US, art students constructed a sculpture in honor of him. In Scotland, pupils spent a day pretending to be Alan. They built their own toasters and wrote diary entries in his name. Alan found his way onto scientist-themed trading cards.
Awareness of the hoax was widespread. Over the past decade, we openly told countless people, who themselves told many people and so on. At times it felt like half the country was in on the joke. Some of the “constructive” edits to the article and any of the Alan MacMasters lore that appeared outside Wikipedia were not mine. I don’t even know where most of it came from. Someone was allegedly pointing out the supposed location where Alan MacMasters invented the toaster during their historical tours of London. Even the Reddit user who supposedly uncovered that the image was fake does not appear to be related to the hoax and their background story is false.
One of our favorite memories was when someone nominated Alan to be on the new £50 note. The Bank of England shortlisted him out of around 200,000 nominations. The other time was in March 2021, when someone posted in our group chat to turn on BBC Two. One of the chefs on Great British Menu was cooking a dish in honor of Alan MacMasters. (see video previously sent)
Q: How do you feel now that it’s gone?
A: I’m a bit baffled that it took over 10 years for anyone to challenge it. A few of us are planning to get together for drinks next week and have another laugh about it. I suspect Alan MacMasters will continue to propagate itself for years to come. It’s the nature of misinformation on the internet.
The Alan MacMasters article was a harmless joke, but it’s depressing to think about how much malicious misinformation spreads on the internet causing mass hysteria and damaging people’s lives. Over the past 10 years, I’ve felt how misinformation on topics like Brexit can cause significant damage to society. The internet should make it much easier to critically analyze information, but I discovered that it also takes very little effort for misinformation to have a wide impact.
Wikipedia article about Alan MacMasters
Alan MacMasters (born 1865) was a Scottish scientist, credited with creating the first electric bread toaster. His invention went on to be developed by Crompton, Stephen J. Cook & Company as the Eclipse. Although not ultimately a commercial success, MacMasters’s invention would pave the way for Charles Strite to invent the automatic pop-up toaster in 1919, and MacMasters’s research into the application of electric heat elements was instrumental in the development of home appliances in the 20th century.
Invention of the toaster
In the Autumn of 1883, Alan MacMasters began his study at the University of Edinburgh within the Department of Natural Philosophy (today the faculties of Physics, Science and Engineering). He spent much of his time studying under Professor Fleeming Jenkin, through whom he connected with the ongoing Glasgow Underground project. MacMasters would go on to research and develop an innovative new lighting system to brighten the dimly lit carriages. While MacMasters’s high luminosity underground lighting would form the backbone of his initial success as an industrialist, it also inadvertently led to his better known discovery, the toaster.
Although intended for Glasgow, MacMasters’s lighting system would first be implemented on the City & South London Railway. It was while working in London that MacMasters met electrical engineer Evelyn Crompton. One night after working together to deliver an electrical and lighting system for what would later become the London Underground Northern line, Crompton invited MacMasters for a drink. Legend has it that after a half-bottle of whisky, MacMasters admitted to Crompton his sly attempt at cost cutting by sourcing a cheaper metal for his filaments. The attempt was a complete failure, as the supplier had put a large amount of nickel in the wire. The resultant lamp ran so hot that his nearby bread began to brown. MacMasters joked that he ought to put one in his kitchen. An amused Crompton invited MacMasters to join him at his laboratory at No. 48 Kensington Court. It was there that MacMasters spent the next several months perfecting the world’s first electric bread toaster before selling the design on to Crompton.
MacMasters’s toaster was brought to mass market as the ‘Eclipse’. It had four electric elements built on a ceramic base. Electricity could be sourced via an adapter that plugged in between a lamp and socket. Unfortunately, by 1894, the MacMasters Eclipse toaster had become the cause of one of Britain’s first deadly appliance fire. A woman in Guildford was overcome in her kitchen after the early elements melted and ignited the table. MacMasters and Crompton denied wrongdoing and instead blamed the deceased for ‘not holding appropriate respect for the power of the electric toaster’ in reference to the fact it had been left unattended.
The invention of the electric kettle is also attributed to MacMasters, who sold the design to Crompton alongside the toaster in the early 1890s. While it used largely the same technology, the element was held in a separate chamber.