On this Day… October 25th

On this Day... October 25th

Fiona Carlson, News Editor

On this day in history…

Microwave ovens, an essential household appliance for millions of people today, were introduced to buyers for the first time.

As many people know, a microwave oven is an oven that uses high-frequency electromagnetic waves to cook and heat up food. However, the dependence on this appliance in today’s society hasn’t always been the case.

Microwave ovens were invented at the end of World War II by Percy LeBaron Spencer. Similar to Post-it Notes and chocolate chip cookies, this invention was created by accident. Spencer was a self-taught engineer working at Raytheon Corp. appliance company when he thought of the idea for the microwave. He was experimenting with magnetrons – vacuum tubes that produce microwave radiation – when he noticed something strange. While he was working the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted! Intrigued by this, Spencer started to test the magnetrons on other foods, such as popcorn kernels and eggs. 

The next step in Spencer’s process was to create the body of the microwave. The first prototype consisted of a metal box that fed the microwaves through the material. The energy was able to enter the box, but not escape it, as microwaves cannot pass through metal. Soon Spencer patented his idea (it is said he received over 150 patents throughout his career), and the microwave oven was born.

The first commercial microwave oven was tested in a Boston restaurant in 1947, two years after Percy Spencer’s chocolate bar melted and he started experimenting with magnetrons on food. Later that same year Raytheon introduced the Radarange 1161. This is often considered the “first” microwave oven, standing 5.5 feet tall and weighing a solid 750 pounds. As the years went on, and technology improved, microwaves became much more popular, especially in the food industry. Restaurants could keep pre-cooked meals in the refrigerator and simply heat them up when ordered, which reduced food waste by a considerable amount. 

The appliance company Tappan brought the microwave oven to the domestic market for the first time on October 25th, 1955. Unfortunately, due to their large size and high price ($1,295), few were sold. A decade later the price had decreased to $500, and the ovens could fit on a countertop, making microwaves much more attainable for the average consumer. When the product was first introduced it lacked popularity among most Americans, but decades later, in 2021, almost 90% of the American population owns a microwave, and uses it 1-2 times every day. On average, this adds up to around 32 hours of microwave use per year, posing the question: What would we do without this staple in simple cooking?