History Of The Microwave
Image by Billy Mabray
The microwave is the saviour of many a modern kitchen. For those of us living a hectic lifestyle and are somewhat hard-pressed for time– and let’s face it, that’s most of us – it’s a godsend.
No longer do we have to slave over a hot stove or wait for hours for our dinner to cook in the oven. Now we can just pop a ready-made meal into the micro, watch it spin its merry micro-dance for five minutes, revel in its audibly magical ‘ping’, and eat.
Gone too are the days of bland and dubious-looking stodge that used to be synonymous with many a micro-meal. There’s a wide, impressive and really rather tasty selection of microwave meals on the market, and every supermarket has their own range of micro-meals-in-minutes offerings.
Here’s a brief look at the history of the microwave.
As with so many products over our grand and glorious history, the invention of the microwave wasn’t something that happened in isolation – it was with the adapting and merging of previous technologies. And surprisingly it didn’t emerge from someone trying to brainstorm a fantastical and revolutionary new way to cook food at a fraction of the time.
It all has a rather interesting and exciting history. It was during World War II that two scientists invented the magnetron – essentially a tube that produced microwaves. The magnetron was used in Britain’s radar system so that the microwaves could identify Nazi planes heading for Britain on bombing campaigns.
A Happy Accident
It was only purely by accident, a few years later, that it was discovered these microwaves could actually cook food.
In 1946, Dr Percy Spencer, a self-taught engineer with the Raytheon Corporation, was conducting a radar research project. As he was experimenting with a new kind of magnetron he realised that the chocolate bar in his pocket has melted.
He tried another experiment by placing popcorn kernels near the tube - the result was that they popped all over his laboratory. He conducted a similar experiment with an egg, which cooked and then exploded before his very eyes.
Spender’s conclusion was simple: he had seen a bar of chocolate bar melt, popcorn kernels pop, and an egg explode as the result of their exposure to the low-density microwave energy. This was the springboard for further scientific curiosity and experimentation: could the microwaves be used to cook other foods as well?
Things Start Heating Up
The idea was quickly took up by engineers who were keen to see Spencer’s new discovered put to good and practical use. A patent was filed in October 1945 for the microwave cooking process and an oven that heated food using microwave energy.
This resulted in the building of the first microwave oven, the Radarange, in 1947. It was a staggering 6 feet (1.8m) tall, weighed 750 lbs (340 kg), and cost just over $5,000. Furthermore, it used up an incredible 3 killowats – roughly three times the amount of today’s microwaves – and was water cooled, which meant it required quite a bit of plumbing too.
Modifications were made so that in 1954 a model which used 1600 watts and sold for between $2,000 - $3,000 was sold.
1967 ushered in the launch of a popular home microwave model, priced at $495 – lighting the touch paper for the household microwave revolution which was to follow. Initial sales were slow – due primarily to the appliance’s hefty price tag – but the concept had been firmly planted in the minds of the public, and the reality and practicality of microwave cooking had arrived.
A Matter Of Modification
Further modifications were made to the microwave during the 60s, including the now standard and recognised short, wide shape familiar today. Unveiled at a trade show in Chicago, the microwave received yet more exposure and generated further interest and popularity, with unit sales in the US growing to one million by the mid-70s.
The microwave was even more popular in Japan and sales were faster - they had managed to manufacture less expensive units through the re-engineering of a cheaper magnetron.
A combination of further tinkering and developments in technology resulted in a microwave that was ultimately a better, more sleek, more efficient product, and at a price more affordable to the pocket of the average consumer.
Warnings And Myths
As with any new technology or invention, there’s always a certain degree of suspicion, doubt, and even fear – and the microwave was no exception.
Radiation poisoning, impotence, sterility, brain damage, and going blind were all accusations levelled at the latest innovation in kitchen technology.
However, by the mid-70s, the pluses far outweighed any perceived minuses, and consumers defied the naysayers (and also proved they were wrong) to enjoy the benefits of microwave cooking.
A Surge In Sales
The mid-70s would see microwaves exceeding their gas equivalents, and an estimated 17% of all homes in Japan using cooking their meals with microwaves.
This overwhelming surge in enthusiasm and sales meant that cooking habits all over the world were changing – with the focus on the energy and time-saving convenience of the appliance. Previously it had been considered a luxury – now it seemed to be a necessity for the busy and fast-paced lifestyles of the contemporary consumer.
And by the late 70s, advances had been made in microwave technology had been made to the extent that prices were falling dramatically.
Nowadays, of course, there’s a microwave to fit practically every size, shape, taste, design and colour of everyone’s kitchen. And extra features such as probe and sensor cooking, grills, and convection heating, means the microwave is multi-faceted and meet the demands of the modern household in a way that would have been inconceivable years ago.
So it’s unquestionable: the microwave is here to stay – and the possibilities of what its future might hold are rather exciting.
By Lee Gilbert
Category: Articles, News & Tips