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Appliances History Learning Center

History of the Microwave

History of the Microwave

The microwave is relatively ubiquitous in today's American kitchen. When we defrost a pork chop or reheat Chinese food from the night before, it's an appliance that most of us take for granted. Let's take a quick glance back at the history of this now pervasive appliance and its serendipitous beginnings.

1945

The year was 1945 and World War II raged with not many knowing its conclusion was on the horizon. In the war's latter days, air superiority was the name of the game. It was prudent for the US military to be forewarned of enemy attacks. To this end, the military prioritized advancements in radar technology which used magnetrons and radio waves to detect incoming aircraft. And thus, Percy Lebaron Spencer entered American folklore.

Despite being almost entirely self-educated, Spencer was already a leading expert in radar tube design. He was employed by Raytheon and constantly worked to improve the functionality and production of magnetron arrays. One day, while working near an active radar set, he reached into his pocket for a candy bar (differing accounts debate whether it was a chocolate bar or a peanut cluster). To his astonishment, he'd found it melted in its wrapper. Spencer surmised that the electromagnetic waves emanating from the radar had liquefied his snack. Ever the scientist, he directed his experimental verve to an egg. This exploded in the face of a co-worker. Not to be deterred, he and his compatriot, the latter having cleaned the egg off his face, placed a few corn kernels in front of the magnetron which subsequently popped into fluffy goodness. Consequently, popcorn became the first food to be prepared by microwave and a new cooking method was born.

Percy Spencer

1947

The accidental discovery of microwave cooking was doubly auspicious. World War II soon drew to a close and caused the decline in demand for magnetrons. With Spencer's findings, Raytheon was eager to put their surplus supply to peacetime applications. Almost immediately after the war, Raytheon obtained a patent for the microwave oven. Like much of the technology of the time, miniaturization would be decades away. The first commercial model, produced in 1947, was dubbed the "Radarange." This behemoth stood almost six feet tall and weighed 750 pounds. Its bulk was due to its need to be water cooled with all the plumbing that entailed. Most critically, it retailed for $3000.00 at the time which, adjusted for inflation, amounts to around $34000.00 in 2017. The Radarange would mainly be employed in industrial kitchens, ocean liners, and fittingly, the first nuclear-powered cargo ship. There the microwave would languish for the next two decades.

Original Radarange

1967

Apart from Raytheon, there were other companies endeavoring to make some headway in microwave cooking. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, Franklin Manufacturing, a subsidiary of the Studebaker Automobile Company (both now defunct), succeeded in producing smaller magnetrons that could be air-cooled. This allowed for the making of smaller microwave models. Raytheon jumped on this trend and, through their newly acquired company, Amana, released the first popular countertop Radarange in 1967. It retailed for $495.00 at the time, equivalent to around $3200.00 in 2017. Still a princely sum, but much more manageable than previous iterations.

1967 Radarange

1976

While a bit more widespread, the microwave was comparatively slow to catch on in the United States. By 1971, only 1% of American households owned a microwave. Part of the problem was a perceived radiation danger on the part of the cooking method. On January 4, 1970, a study was published by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare that indicated microwaves leaked, well, microwaves. Manufacturers reacted by adopted new standards in the construction of their ovens, resulting in safer appliances and abating the public's apprehension. Coinciding with increased safety factors, major food processors, the biggest of which were Green Giant and its parent company, Pillsbury, adopted the microwave as a viable method of cooking their products. Once the safety and convenience needs of the American people were met, microwave demand surged. In five short years, microwaves reached parity with (and by some measures surpassed) gas ovens in sales in 1976.

Present Day

As the years progressed, the microwave has remained a perennial staple in American homes, reaching a 90% saturation rate in the US by 1997. It's never supplanted the traditional kitchen range as the main method of food preparation, but never really needed to. Like a trusted tool, it's always there when required whether to warm up some leftovers for a quick meal or to pop a bag of popcorn before an evening of staying in to watch a movie.

SMD3070ASY Sharp 30 Inch Microwave Drawer