Tom Blank of Weird History Food offers an enlightening look at the accidental origins of the microwave oven and how one man’s faith in innovation would eventually make this machine increasingly popular in modern times.
Re-heater of pizzas, popper of corn, melter of Tupperware. The microwave oven forever changed what and how we eat, for better and for worse. But where did those small magical metal gadgets in our kitchen come from, and how have they affected food culture?
As it turns out, the discovery of this handy technology was accidental. While working at Raytheon Technologies, Percy Spencer, an expert in radar tube engineering, accidentally melted the chocolate peanut bar in his pocket while standing in front of a radar. He then began experimenting with other foods to see how they responded to an electromagnetic field, and thus the microwave oven was born
While the magnetron’s ability to produce heat was something that was already known at Raytheon’s labs the melted peanut brick is what gave Spencer the idea to use this technology to cook food. Spencer knew he was on to something revolutionary. Now he just had to figure out how to contain and control the high frequency radio waves and electromagnetic radiation.
The first machine for home use was the unwieldy and expensive Radarange. Over time, however, the oven became smaller and more efficient, particularly with Japanese engineering. The microwave oven became very popular in the 1980s. Its popularity has waned recently, but the convenience of the microwave oven is here to stay.
So the microwave, the appliance that was once so untouchable Americans voted it an essential product alongside cars, washing machines, and air conditioners in a 2006 Pew Research poll, has lost its luster, as the junk food we like to put it in has lost its luster. But junk food never goes out of style, and neither does reheating a plate of leftovers… So although its popularity may have cooled to room temperature, the microwave oven isn’t going anywhere.
The microwave was invented accidentally by an engineer named Percy Spencer, who was leading a defense radar project. His invention would change the way Americans would eat forever.