TECH & SCIENCE

Of melted choco­late bars, mag­netrons, and the mi­crowave

Wangaratta Chronicle - North East Regional Extra - - FRONT PAGE - with CHRIS

IF you’re any­thing like me, and your culi­nary ex­per­tise ex­tends to ‘not al­ways burn­ing toast’, there’s a fair chance you’d be com­pletely lost with­out a mi­crowave oven to heat up your meals. Frozen meals, pizza pock­ets, pop­corn, legs of lamb, veg­eta­bles - just ‘chuck ‘em in the mi­crowave’ and you’re good to go. Okay, you won’t be winning MasterChef any time soon, but what­ever you heat up is edi­ble, for the most part. The point is, with­out this trusty ap­pli­ance, our lives would be a whole lot less con­ve­nient, and prob­a­bly in­volve a lot more third de­gree burns. But where did this mirac­u­lous in­no­va­tion come from? To whom must we bach­e­lors pros­trate our­selves in end­less ap­pre­ci­a­tion and awe for our daily sus­te­nance? That hon­our goes to an es­teemed en­gi­neer by the name of Percy Spencer, a cu­ri­ously melted choco­late bar in his pocket, and the surely dan­ger­ous lev­els of ex­po­sure to ra­di­a­tion he un­know­ingly sub­jected him­self to - all in the name of science...and food. In fact, the mi­crowave oven we know to­day was in­vented by happy ac­ci­dent. Percy’s jour­ney to be­come the in­ven­tor of the mi­crowave be­gan when he was very young. He grew up poor at the turn of the 20th cen­tury in the ru­ral area of How­land, Maine, USA. Mr Percy’s par­ents passed away when he was very young, and by the age of 12 he was the head of his fam­ily and be­gan work­ing at a spool fac­tory. He quickly be­came a skilled ma­chin­ist, and - when the fac­tory was con­verted to elec­tri­cal power - a 16 year old Percy was one of three men who signed up to out­fit the fac­tory with the new source of power. A re­mark­able feat con­sid­er­ing he had no real for­mal ed­u­ca­tion nor prior train­ing. By the time the fac­tory was fully op­er­a­tional, Percy had be­come a com­pe­tent elec­tri­cian. In­spired by the hero­ism of the wire­less op­er­a­tors who sought to save pas­sen­gers dur­ing the sink­ing of the Ti­tanic, Percy joined the Navy dur­ing the First World War and learned wire­less teleg­ra­phy. Once again, he re­ceived lit­tle in the way of train­ing, in­stead teach­ing him­self what he needed to know dur­ing the long hours of the night while he stood watch. Af­ter World War I, Percy landed a job at the new­lyestab­lished Amer­i­can Ap­pli­ance Com­pany, co-founded by en­gi­neer Van­nevar Bush, who to­day is most known for or­gan­is­ing the Man­hat­tan Project and pre­dict­ing many of the in­no­va­tions that led to the com­puter revo­lu­tion and the in­ter­net. In 1925, the com­pany changed its name to Raytheon Manufacturing. Percy be­came one of Raytheon’s most valued and well­known en­gi­neers. Dur­ing World War II, while Raytheon was work­ing on im­prov­ing radar tech­nol­ogy for Al­lied forces, Percy was the com­pany’s go-to prob­lem solver. He earned sev­eral pa­tents while work­ing on more ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive ways to mass-pro­duce radar mag­netrons. A radar mag­netron is a type of elec­tric whis­tle that in­stead of cre­at­ing vi­brat­ing sound cre­ates vi­brat­ing elec­tro­mag­netic waves. When first de­vel­oped, Raytheon was only able to cre­ate 100 mag­netrons per day, due to the pre­ci­sion of con­struc­tion re­quired. And so, Percy de­vel­oped a new method of con­struc­tion - one that in­volved mul­ti­ple cop­per and sil­ver plates that could be bored out by ma­chines and stacked on top of each other be­fore be­ing fused to­gether in an oven. This, and other in­no­va­tions by Percy, meant that Raytheon were able to pro­duce up­ward of 2500 units per day, an achieve­ment for which the Navy awarded Spencer the Dis­tin­guished Pub­lic Ser­vice Award. Af­ter the Sec­ond World War, Percy was ob­serv­ing one of the mag­netrons and no­ticed that the choco­late bar in his pocket had melted rapidly. This was the cat­a­lyst for fur­ther ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. He then ob­served as pop­corn ker­nels quickly popped when placed close to the mag­netron, and eggs ex­ploded. It was then that Percy knew he had some­thing great on his hands. In 1946, Raytheon pro­duced the first com­mer­cial mi­crowave ovens. These be­he­moths were the size of a re­frig­er­a­tor and re­quired plumb­ing as they were wa­ter cooled. But by 1967 Raytheon had per­fected the engi­neer­ing of mi­crowave ovens to the ex­tent that they were able to mass pro­duce smaller, do­mes­tic ver­sions of the oven. The mi­crowave was such a revo­lu­tion­ary tech­no­log­i­cal step that Raytheon hired a team of home econ­o­mists to in­stall the ovens in peo­ple’s homes and cook their first meal for them. These home econ­o­mists were avail­able 24 hours a day for the first year af­ter the launch of the prod­uct. They cer­tainly don’t make cus­tomer ser­vice like they use to. So the next time you’re nuk­ing your meal, spare a thought for Percy Spencer and his melted choco­late bar. Be­cause, let’s face it, with­out him, we’d spend more time set­ting off smoke alarms than ac­tu­ally eat­ing any­thing.

NUKE IT: The first do­mes­tic mi­crowave, in­tro­duced in Chicago in 1967, was in­stalled by a home-econ­o­mist who then cooked the cus­tomer’s first meal - they don’t make them them like they use to.

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