The microwave oven first came to consumers as by-product of an experimental technology. In 1946, Dr. Percy Spencer, an engineer for Raytheon Corporation, was testing a device called a magnetron. By serendipitous accident, he realized the candy bar in his lab coat pocket had warmed. Curious about this phenomenon, he placed some popcorn kernels near the tube- they popped!
The next day, Spencer and a colleague observed the magnetron’s effect on an egg. The magnetron’s effect on the egg caused it to explode onto the faces of the observers. Dr. Spencer refined his device by building an enclosure to create a higher density field of electromagnetic waves. Food placed in this box achieved high temperature very quickly. A multi million dollar business was then born.
Raytheon quickly began developing a consumer unit, and applied for a patent before the end of 1946. In 1947, the first commercial unit to hit the market was tested in the kitchen of a Boston restaurant. The first units produced were just under six foot tall, weighed hundreds of pounds, and cost thousands of dollars.
Initial reactions to the microwave oven were cautious. The unit was cumbersome, and was water cooled. The refinements that took place in the following years, especially the air-cooled magnetron, ensured the microwave’s acceptance in the modern kitchen.
Businesses were now able to heat products more quickly than in the past, resulting in fresher products delivered to consumers. The microwave also gained popularity in unexpected ways, as manufacturers of leather, coffee, cork, and other products used the microwave to quickly heat and dry products.
Over the next 20 years, the microwave slowly evolved from a product the size of a refrigerator to the smaller, range top models more common today. The acquisition of the Amana company by Raytheon brought about introduction of the first counter top oven, a 100 watt unit that was safer and more effective than ever.
The 1970s saw an unbelievable success for the microwave oven, and a bevy of myths about the dangers of the oven became popular. Customers feared that the oven might cause radiation sickness, impotence, or blindness. As the oven became more popular, fears of the oven were eased. No one had acquired any of the supposed maladies that could be caused by the microwave oven’s electromagnetic waves.
In 1975, sales of microwave ovens reached a landmark as they exceeded the sales of gas ranges. In 1975, Japanese homes were much more likely than American homes to have a microwave. By 1976, microwave ovens became more popular than the dishwasher in American kitchens. In 1976 the microwave had reached the kitchens of nearly 60% of American houses.
Today, the microwave has revolutionized the way Americans eat. The oven has evolved into a variety of forms to suit the diverse needs of the American home and business. Today’s consumer can choose from options like convection cooking, probe cooking, and sensor cooking. The savings of energy and time have brought great convenience to American kitchen. While once considered to be a luxury item, the fast pace of American life has made the microwave a necessity. The waves created by Dr. Percy Spencer in 1946 have now spread around the world, creating a phenomenon of global scale.