Quick and Easy History: The Microwave
Microwaves are such a large part of many people’s busy life, from zapping microwave lunches to reheating leftover food. However, did you know that’s not quite the case 60 years ago or even 30 years ago for some in North America?
The microwave started thanks to the curious-minded Percy Spencer, an American engineer who worked for the Raytheon Corporation, a company heavily involved in radar-related technologies during World War II that could be used in radar. This technology eventually led to Spencer-designed radar sets being installed in U.S. bombers that possessed enough power to detect periscopes on German submarines. In 1945, Spencer was working on magnetrons, which are vacuum tubes used to generate microwave signals for radar systems. The story that has been told is that one day, while standing near an active magnetron, Spencer noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had melted. Intrigued by what happened to the candy bar, it sparked his curiosity to start experimenting with the heating effects of microwaves. Following his curiosity for the next few years, Spencer and his team developed the first microwave oven, which used microwaves to cook food in 1947.
This first commercial microwave was called "Radarange.” This was not for the common household due to their size and cost, but for more commercial uses like hotels and restaurants. They were between $2000-$3000 USD, approximately $27,260- $40,889 in 2023 USD currency, and approximately $36,405- $54,611 CAD in 2023. When we said big, did you imagine twice the size of our modern microwave? Believe it or not, it stood about 6 feet tall and the weight of one was incredibly heavy, weighing over 750 pounds! This is about an average male and an average female lion’s weight combined! A video on TikTok stated that this microwave had its own plumbing for a water cooler because the device consumed a whopping 3000 watts. In an article found in the Evening Star dated, March 18, 1947 that “Thorough cooking was emphasized. It was explained the microwaves dart through every particle of the dish being cooked – the food is evenly done.” Contrary to popular belief, museum volunteers who vividly recall the introduction of the microwave expressed that wasn’t the case.
“Before they had turn-tables, one part of the food would be overcooked, another part would be raw. [Also] People were told they could cook everything in a microwave. But [the] meat came out grey. So, you had to get a spray to make that lump look more appetizing.” – Museum Volunteer
It would take some time for the public to be able to afford a microwave and get used to the idea of cooking without a flame. In Japan, Sharp Corporation developed the R-10, Japan's first microwave oven in 1961 where they would be one of the first companies to mass produce microwave ovens. Later Sharp Corporation the introduction of the first microwave oven with a turntable sometime between 1964 – 1966. Meanwhile, in North America, Tappan would introduce a household microwave in 1955, but it would still be too large and expensive for the public. It wasn’t until 1967 when the Amana Corporation release their countertop microwave oven that it became a seller. However, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that it was a bit more affordable for the average consumer in North America. This doesn’t mean that the size of the microwaves were the ones we have today. It took decades for microwaves to be what they are today and for people to understand how they worked.
“I remember that people were warned not to stand too close to the radar range when cooking (that's what they were called when first produced) because microwaves could be leaking out and could cook your brain.” – Shops Museum Volunteer #1
“Bought the one-ton Panasonic supper microwave [and that] took up most of the counter.” – Shops Museum Volunteer #2
Over the years, microwaves have undergone significant evolution, transforming into smaller, more efficient, and cost-effective appliances. As a result, it changed the way many households cook their food. From eating microwave-ready foods, reheating, and using microwave meal recipes, to heating hot water in an instant. Microwaves have become an indispensable part of modern kitchens, offering quick and convenient solutions for the busy lifestyle.
Artifacts In our Collection:
# 4174, General Electric either 1972 or 1984.
#1722, Panasonic January 1981
#966, Panasonic Sky-Lite c. 1976 microwave oven from Panasonic. Called the Panasonic Sky-Lite Microwave Oven, its “modern Lo-profile” design of a lid that flips up and a dial timer, stands out from the normal rectangular microwave ovens. This product emphasized the wrap-around window that lets you watch what’s cooking from the front and top. The Panasonic Sky-Lite Microwave Oven was short-lived. Not only was it expensive, but consumers also didn’t buy into portable microwaves, and by 1978, the product was already being heavily discounted.
#3613, MinuteMaster Purchased in 1976. Size approx. 18" x 24".