How Long Have Humans Meddled in Fowl Affairs?
The first recorded instance of humans artificially incubating poultry came about in Egypt around 3,000 years ago. They stacked mud brick houses with multiple small rooms with ovens placed on either side of the passageways in order to keep a consistent temperature. Now this may sound difficult, nearly impossible even, but the hatchery managers and workers back then actually lived and slept in these rooms.
In particular the Egyptian hatchers would place fertile eggs on their eyelids (the most temperature sensitive part of the body) in order to make sure each egg was just right. Incubation rooms in these mud huts also had shelves for burning straw, dung, and charcoal which could be burned to raise the temperature. Vents located in the room could cool the eggs and let out smoke.
Egyptians turned eggs once a day, even back then they knew the embryo would stick to the inside of the egg if it wasn’t turned! Humidity was controlled and raised in the later days of incubation by placing wet burlap over the eggs.
Even today in Fayum, Egypt families continue the tradition of ancient incubation. The art hasn’t lost its touch considering about 90% of fertile eggs are hatched, with one family setting 40,000 eggs and selling over 32,000 chicks a week all year round. The city of Fayum is still known to the world today for the origination of the Fayoumi Breed.
First noted in 246 BC the Chinese began a very similar system of incubation, with brick ovens and whole buildings dedicated to hatching chickens. In contrast to the Egyptians however, Chinese hatchery workers learned that after chick embryos developed they would begin to produce heat. Thus they used the older more developed eggs interspersed with young undeveloped embryos, producing their own heat.
By the mid 1600’s Europeans were well aware of the successful Egyptian techniques and brought experts in to operate a hatchery, only to find the harsh European winters made Egyptian incubation impractical if not impossible. After this failure Europeans began to look towards advanced machinery for their incubation woes. A French scientist by the name of De Beaumur published “the art of hatching and bringing up domestic fowls of all kinds, at any time of the year…”, a wild idea at the time. de Baumur used heat from fermentation and a rudimentary thermometer to hatch his eggs.
By the mid 20th century, developments in electronics, thermostats and various technologies coupled with an increase in the size of poultry flocks led to modern day incubators. Rooms with temperature controlled to the tenth of a degree at all times. Perfect Humidity maintain and changed for optimal hatch rates, and giant racks rotated by computer once an hour.
Even with the best computers and equipment on the planet, incubating eggs still has yet to reach the quality of a broody hen. Maybe in another 3,000 years we will have figured it out.