Little Bits of History

Nuke It

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 25, 2011

Early microwave oven

October 25, 1955: The first domestic microwave oven is sold by Tappan. Dr. Percy Spencer was investigating a new vacuum tube called a magnetron while working at the Raytheon Corporation. What he found was that as he tested the new tube, the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Next, he placed some popcorn kernels near the tube and watched them pop. His next experiment was with an egg. This time, he had a coworker with him and they watched the egg begin to shake, they moved closer. The pressure inside the egg became too great and both men were covered with hot, exploding egg. They deduced there was an explanation involving low-density microwave energy.

Spencer and P.R. Hanson began working on a secret project. They finally developed the first microwave oven. It was almost six feet tall and weighed an amazing 750 pounds. It also cost about $5,000 in 1947. The magnetron tube which produced the microwaves had to be water-cooled, so the machine also required some plumbing. They weren’t a big seller. Finally, a method for air-cooling was developed. This was a boon to vending and restaurant businesses, but the device was still not for home use.

In 1947, Raytheon demonstrated the first microwave oven and called it a “Radarange” after an employee won a naming contest. They were still the size of refrigerators and cost between $2,000 and $3,000. Used in industry, it wasn’t convenient for home use. Then Tappan produced the first domestic oven. It was much smaller, the size of a conventional oven. It was less powerful than the commercial models. It had two cooking speeds (500 and 800 watts) and sold for $1,300. Sales were better, but not brisk.

Microwave ovens have gotten progressively better designs over the years. Today they are smaller, more powerful, with a wider range of settings, and a number of extra features. The microwaves themselves behave the same way as they did a half century ago. Food is cooked so quickly that it is sometimes cooked unevenly. Metal acts as a conductor and cannot safely be used inside a microwave. Products heated for too long can catch fire inside the oven. And the waves themselves are not safe if humans are directly exposed to them. Most ovens, therefore, have a safety feature that turns off the oven if the door is opened.

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny …’” – Isaac Asimov

“He looks about as happy as a penguin in a microwave.” – Sid Waddell

“I don’t cook – I can cook – but I’m not very good. I like being asked over for dinner, because she can’t cook either. We would starve if it weren’t for modern technology. I know how to work a microwave, but love home cooked meals.” – Mark Mothersbaugh

“I put instant coffee in a microwave oven and almost went back in time.” – Steven Wright

Also on this day:
Who Blinked? – In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis confrontation between Adlai Stevenson and Valerian Zorin took place.
George, George, George – In 1760, George III began his reign in England.

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