Microwave Oven Story

“There are no mistakes, only happy accidents”

by Desong Wang

Desong Wang is a PhD candidate at Polytechnique School of Montreal in Electrical engineering.

Desong Wang is a PhD candidate at Polytechnique School of Montreal in Electrical engineering.

“Accidents are not accidents but precise arrivals at the wrong right time.”
― Dejan Stojanovic

On hearing the word “microwave”, the first reaction of most people, I guess, may be the microwave oven. Indeed, microwave oven is an important application of microwave.

Today, microwave oven is commonly used in our daily life. The sights like a 3-D box, sounds “Beep”, and smells of the microwave oven are immediately familiar to most people. Microwave oven can heat everything from popcorn to pork rinds in a hurry. However, the microwave oven did not come about as a result of someone trying to find a better, faster way to cook. During World War II, the magnetron, a tube that produces microwaves, was invented. The microwave is beloved for its speed and ease of use. But what you might not know about your indispensable kitchen appliance is that it was invented utterly by accident one fateful day a dozen years ago, when an engineer named Percy Spencer was testing a military-grade magnetron and suddenly realized his snack had melted.

That day Spencer was visiting a lab where magnetrons, the power tubes of radar sets, were being tested. Suddenly, he felt a peanut bar start to cook in his pocket. Other scientists had noticed this phenomenon, but Spencer itched to know more about it.

He sent a boy out for a package of popcorn. When he held it near a magnetron, popcorn exploded all over the lab. Next morning, he brought in a kettle, cut a hole in the side and put an uncooked egg (in its shell) into the pot. Then he moved a magnetron against the hole and turned on the juice. A skeptical engineer peeked over the top of the pot just in time to catch a face-full of cooked egg. The reason? The yolk cooked faster than the outside, causing the egg to burst. Spencer then created what we might call the first true microwave oven by attaching a high density electromagnetic field generator to an enclosed metal box. The magnetron would then shoot into the metal box, so that the electromagnetic waves would have no way to escape, which would allow for more controlled and safe experimentation. He then placed various food items in the box and monitored their temperature to observe the effect.

From this simple experiment, Spencer developed the microwave oven. In 1947, just a year after Spencer's snack food serendipity, the first commercial microwave oven hit the market, called the “Radarange”. It was about 6 feet tall, weighed around 750 pounds weighed, and cost more than $2,000. At first, it was used exclusively in restaurants, railroad cars and ocean liners -- places where large quantities of food had to be cooked quickly.

In fact, it took decades after the invention of the microwave oven for it to be refined to a point where it would be useful to the average consumer. Today, Percy Spencer's radar boxes melt chocolate and pop popcorn in millions of homes around the world.

In our daily life, there would be many unexpected accidents or mistakes. Not all of them are bad things. With a curiosity, take a closer look at them, we may have a big finding. Remember that saying:

“There are no mistakes, only happy accidents”

If you are more interested in the invention story of microwave oven, you can see the related articles below.

1. http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventions/microwave.htm

2. http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventors/spencer.htm

3. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/08/the-microwave-oven-was-invented-by-accident-by-a-man-who-was-orphaned-and-never-finished-grammar-school/

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microwave_oven#Early_developments

4. http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/a19567/how-the-microwave-was-invented-by-accident/

5. http://spectrum.ieee.org/geek-life/history/a-brief-history-of-the-microwave-oven