TECH & SCIENCE
Of melted chocolate bars, magnetrons, and the microwave
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.