The Microwave Oven

by Pat Jacobs
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This year (2007) marks the 40th anniversary of the domestic compact microwave oven.

The Amana Radarange debuted in Chicago in 1967 as "a product that would forever change how Americans eat and cook." It was also criticized as a gimmick that would ruin the fine art of cooking.

The first Amana Radarange featured a 115 volt current, cost $495, and cooked hamburgers in 35 seconds. There was just two buttons, "start" and "light". Also included were two control knobs, one for cooking times up to five minutes, and the other for cooking times up to 25 minutes. The compact size was made possible by a small, efficient electron tube (developed in 1964 in Japan) which replaced the older, bulkier magnetron tubes.

Because this product and its technology was so new, Amana executives launched a year-long massive effort to educate its appliance retailers, wholesalers, and consumers nationwide.

A national media blitz was then launched, kicking off in Chicago. The Amana company invited reporters and housewives to tour the city's suburbs; Amana hosts served coffee, reheated meals, and made popcorn.

In addition, there was a specially trained home economist who would arrive at the homes to help install the family's Radarange and cook their first microwave meal. The economist was on 24-hour call for each client for the first year of the launch, as was a serviceman, guaranteed to show up within an hour, in case of problems.

The campaign was a huge success; the microwave oven was now among us. Sales WERE slow during the first few years, partly due to the steep price (for the time). But there was no turning back; in succeeding years, Litton and several other companies joined the market.

The now household essential (a spin-off of wartime RADAR) came about as the result of an accident; in the late 1940s, Dr. Percy Spencer (1894-1970, a self-taught engineer who never graduated from grammar or high school ; He became a senior vice-president and a Board of Directors member at his company, Raytheon, and held 150 patents during his career.

Dr. Spencer was considered one the world's leading experts in the field of microwave energy. In Sept. 1999, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.) was doing research on magnetron, a new vacuum tube of the time. As he passed by the device, he noticed something unusual; the microwaves that the device generated was causing the candy bar in his pocket to melt.

Further experiments with eggs (they exploded) and popcorn (that popped) proved highly successful. Why not regular food?

Engineers went to work on Dr. Spencer's hot idea, developing and refining it. A prototype was built and a patent filed (An oven that heated food using microwave energy was then placed in a Boston restaurant for testing).

In 1947, the first commercial (for ships, hotels, and industrial use) microwave oven hit the market. These models were gigantic, standing almost 6 feet tall, weighing over 750 lbs., and cost about $5000 each. Plumbing installations were also required, for the magnetron tube had to be water-cooled. These were the first Radaranges.

Sales were slow at first, but further improvements and developments soon produced a more reliable and less expensive model. There was now a new air-cooled magnetron tube (no more plumber installations!).

The microwave was accepted first by commercial industries such as restaurants, the food industry, and manufacturing operations.

The first microwave ovens for home consumer use were in 1955, but due to their large size (about the size of an electric oven) and their high price ($1, 295), few purchased them.

In 1965 Raytheon acquired Anmana Refrigeration. And there were further developments that led up to the 1967 model.

There were many fears surrounding these new products (In 1968, tests confirmed that microwaves DID leak out of the ovens, but 1971 Federal standards resolved this problem). There were worries concerning radiation poisoning, going blind, becoming sterile or impotent.

By the 1970s, more and more people were finding out that the benefits of microwave cooking were outweighing the possible risks. As fears faded, acceptance swelled up in America and worldwide. The microwave was in demand.

By 1975, sales of microwave ovens would surpass that of gas ovens for the first time. By 1976, more people owned microwaves than a dishwasher, now in 60% of American homes (or about 52 million).

This invention has come a long way since 1967, sparking not just a cooking revolution, (and a new industry, microwavable food), but even becoming an integral part of kitchen design. There are now varying sizes, shapes, feature options, and colors, as well as prices to fit any budget. Today, more than 90% of American homes have a microwave oven.

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