camp stove history

The Magical History of the Camp Stove

The Year was 1850. Victorian high society was obsessed with the picnic. They translated all the baubles and sophistication of a Victorian dining room outside.

They were really into the juxtaposition of the formal dining experience and the informality of the outdoors.

Up until this point, picnics consisted of cold food: meats and cheeses, fruit, etc.

Alexis (uh-lex-E) Soyer fled the French Revolution and settled in England. He was an early-adopter of new technology, which ruffled feathers in the very traditional English culinary culture. He was using steam to pump and heat water, to drive spits, and move dumb-waiters.

“Now we’re cooking with gas.”

Then coal-extracted gas came around and Alexis put gas mains into his kitchen. People had been lighting cooking fires with gas for 40 years, but Alexis was the first to cook directly on gas.

Alexis invented several home kitchen products based on his commercial kitchen innovations, which he liked to name indecipherable Greek-rooted names.

The reason we’re talking about French chef, turned English kitchen revolutionary, is because he invented the first portable gas stove. He called it, humbly, “Soyer’s Magic Stove.” He spared us an obnoxious Greek name and took his new stove to market.

Soyer's Magic Stove

Picnics were no longer limited to cold cuts. A single-burner could prepare a warm meal for a bespectacled Victorian gentleman. Then explorers got ahold of the Magic Stove, Captain Horatio Austin was outfitted with Magic Stoves on his search for John Franklin in the Arctic.

The stove was used in soup kitchens during Ireland’s potato famine (or, uh, potato theft, if you actually care about what happened). Soyer donated money to have the kitchen built.

Working on the Irish potato theft was the beginning of the gas stove’s journey into the field. Alexis created a “field stove” during the 1853-56 conflict between the Russians and allied Turks, Brits, and French on the Crimean Penisula. Poor management of camps was killing more of the allied troops than Russians. To aid with sanitation and nutrition in the camps, Alexis created a larger, more efficient version of his stove, making it field-ready.

The field stove was so well-designed and received by the British Army that it was used until the modern era.

Modern Innovation: WWII and the Portable Gas Stove

Another Frenchman, Jue LaFare, created a portable gas stove in 1932 that looks remarkably like the Snow Peak Titanium Stove that I carry on backpacking trips today. It was collapsible and used small blue canisters of fuel.

snow peak stove

By 1934, the canisters were used by officers in the French army. They were extremely concerned with the rank and file using the stoves improperly and distributed the stoves with English instructions since only officers were taught to speak English.

That brings us to WWII and the United States and that old stand-by, Coleman. In 1942, aware that the US would eventually be dragged into the global conflict, the US government approached Coleman about creating a portable gas stove for GIs.

They wanted it lightweight, smaller than a quart-sized thermos, and able to operate from sub-zero permafrost to the shadeless Saharan sands.

Coleman returned a design within 60 days. The GI Pocket Stove is what prompted this episode. Someone posted a picture of one in a backpacking group I’m in and I knew it had a story to tell. I’m going to keep an eye out for one of my own at army surplus stores.

The Pocket Stove can burn leaded or unleaded gasoline and pretty much anything else that’s flammable. Like an MSR Windburner, you pump a fuel reservoir and light the burner. It’s a simple tool, but indispensable on the battlefields of WWII and the backcountry today.