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Microwave ovens: a brief history

Microwave ovens: a brief history

If you work in the foodservice industry and rely on rapid cooking technology, you’ll be used to simply popping your food into a microwave oven, pressing a couple of buttons and watching as it magically undertakes the cooking process perfectly.

We do the same at home – it’s culinary convenience that’s tough to match, but have you ever wondered where the microwave oven came from?

There’s some ingenious technology and ideas going on behind the scenes when you press that ‘go’ button, and we thought we’d take this opportunity to provide a brief history of the brilliant microwave oven!

The market for magnetron tubes dies

When World War II came to an end, the market for magnetron tubes died a sudden death that prompted some very creative minds to come up with a new use for them.

Used to generate microwaves for short-range military radars, magnetron tubes were heavily relied on by the army, but their sole purpose was about to be wiped out. It seemed criminal for such a smart form of technology to go to waste, which is why new applications for it were quickly found.

During that time, it was widely known that radio waves could heat certain materials. In fact, they were already used for heating in medical and industrial contexts and the idea of using radio waves to heat food wasn’t new.

It just needed someone to explore the possibilities!

Enter Bell Labs and microwave experimentation

Along with RCA and General Electric, Bell Labs had been experimenting with variations of microwave cooking technology for some time.

As long ago as 1933, they could be found demonstrating a 10-kilowatt shortwave radio that was capable of cooking potatoes and steaks held between two plates.

Nothing came of these experiments, unfortunately, but they certainly didn’t go unnoticed.

Percy Spencer

It’s fair to assume that Percy Spencer, a Raytheon engineer, was inspired by the Bell Labs experimentation, because legend has it that he decided to take the concept much further.

In 1946, Spencer filed one of the most important patents in history. It was for the use of microwaves in cooking and was neatly illustrated with the popping of popcorn – a food item that turned out to be something of a lightbulb moment for him.

Bag of popcorn in hand, Spencer decided to hold it near a magnetron and marvelled as the popcorn exploded all over the room – which gave him another idea.

The next day he cut a hole in the side of a kettle and inserted an uncooked egg (with shell still intact) into the pot.

Spencer then placed a magnetron against the hole in the kettle and turned it on. After a while, the egg burst, because the yolk cooked faster than the outside. It was a turning point for Spencer and probably the first glimpse at what the future could be like with microwave cooking.

…or was it a more gradual process?

As with any historical tale, there are a few alternative versions.

Not everyone believes Spencer’s microwave discovery was quite so immediate, with some industry insiders such as Raytheon researcher John M. Osepchuk claiming the birth of the microwave was far more gradual.

Despite this, most people agree that it was Spencer’s early experimentations that prompted bigger businesses to invest in the research and development that led to the microwaves we have in our homes and commercial kitchens today.

We’ll dive more into the fascinating history of microwave ovens in future blog posts – stay tuned…

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