Who Invented the Microwave Oven?

microwave oven on counter top

The microwave oven is an excellent invention, and there’s no doubt about that. Designed to quickly and effortlessly cook food, providing you with a meal in 10 minutes when an oven might take 30, the microwave oven is a staple appliance.

However, have you ever stopped to wonder how it came to be? What had to happen to get us to the point we’re at now? Here at Repair Aid, we do stop and question what things are, and how they’ve become what we work with so intimately, so we’re going to go on a walk through the history of the microwave oven, to see what it’s all about.

A Chance Invention

What a lot of people don’t know about the microwave oven is that it was invented, at least at first, entirely by accident. It began with a man named Percy LeBaron Spencer. He was a self-taught engineer and worked on magnetrons, which are vacuum tubes that can produce radiation.

One day, he was working on a magnetron and discovered that the chocolate inside his pocket had melted, seemingly for no reason. This occurrence puzzled him, and so he set about testing other foods with the magnetron and the radiation created. To his surprise, grains like corn kernels reacted in the way we all know and enjoy, which led to his realisation that all of the foods had were exposed to low-level radiation.

The next step in the process was for him to build a metal box, and then introduce microwaves into it, because they could not pass through the metal and escape. Through his endeavours, we learned something important – the microwave could cook food faster than a conventional oven by quite a long way. So in 1945, Spencer put in an application for a patent, and the lifespan of the microwave began.

microwave oven magnetron

Moving Forward at Last

Of course, this was not the microwave which we know and love today. It was far from it. The first commercial model was tested in 1947 and was a big machine that was nothing like the slim and compact options we have today. It was tall, heavy and needed a constant supply of water to regulate the temperature. However, it was a step in the direction we needed, which is why it was important.

Despite this large size and general simplicity of the design, the first microwaves still found themselves in demand. For the ever growing of restaurants, it was a new saviour – they could store food they didn’t use and then reheat it, thus cutting down waste and expenses.

Interestingly enough, people reasoned that the potential of the device was not limited to just food. Corporate businesses would use them for things like ceramics and paper because it cut the drying time in half and made businesses a much more efficient way to work.

Now, the first domestic microwave oven was introduced in 1955, but was exceptionally expensive, meaning that, like a lot of developing technology in the era, it was only available to a select few. However, the company who created the first domestic model, Raytheon, bought out another company in the 1960s and thus made a microwave which could fit on a worktop and cost under £400.

Naturally, this skyrocketed the popularity of the microwave oven, and they started to become more and more popular. As a trend, it stuck, because the modern microwave is compact, affordable and exceptionally powerful. It was evident that technology was a good idea, and helped to change the way that people eat.

How Does a Microwave Work?

So, we’ve looked at the history of the microwave, but how do they work? That’s a question that’s had a lot of people confused. We’ve all put stuff in, set a time and walked away, but what’s the science behind it?

So, a microwave oven uses a specific frequency of 2,450 megahertz (MHz), with a power which ranges from 500 watts to 1,100 watts. This particular frequency and control mean that there’s no way for the waves to escape the confinement of the microwave and at the same time ensures food is cooked.

So, here’s how it works. The water molecules inside the food absorb the radiation as it bombards the interior of the microwave. This process creates vibrations, which in turn generate heat and allow the food to cook. The molecules of radiation can pass through glass, ceramic and plastic, but not metal. That’s why you can only put certain types of items inside a microwave safely.

A magnetron generates the microwaves themselves. This magnetron is made up of two magnets which sit on either side of a vacuum tube, remember that from earlier? The radiation is the result of the flow of electrons building up inside the oven and generating electrical and magnetic fields.

Being Safe With Your Microwave

microwave safety

Since their creation, you may have known that microwaves have gotten a pretty bad reputation among official bodies like the World Health Organisation. Their argument is that because there is radiation cooking the food at all times, it’s potentially unsafe for humans to be around.

However, they also go onto state that when adequately looked after and maintained, a microwave oven is a safe appliance for the home. While it is true that large quantities of radiation can be harmful to the human body, this risk is mitigated by the presence of microwaves only when the door is shut and the device is in use. As the waves can not pass through the metal container of the oven – owing to the Faraday Cage properties of the material itself – the risk is reduced so long as there are no gaps or damage.

It’s also recommended that people take care to make sure that their foods are being cooked evenly and adequately, as this is one of the other primary concerns which are raised when looking at this appliance.

Microwave Ovens – A Bright Future?

Interestingly enough, the microwave is one of the best ways to cook food and still maintain it’s nutritional value. A study conducted in 2010 found that when cooking vegetables, there was the least amount of anti-oxidants lost when the microwave was involved!

Their future is also pretty confident. With technology advancing all the time and breakthroughs being made, it’s only a matter of time until the common microwave changes again. Whether this takes the form of people attempting to find new radiation to cook with which is even more advanced and safer, or someone manages to find technology which renders the current models obsolete, it’s safe to say that this appliance can only move forward.

Overall, the microwave oven has had quite a fascinating history. There’s no denying that it has moved forward and progressed in a big way since it was first created, and with all of the different options considering cost and size you won’t be out of choice. We at Repair Aid have worked on a lot of microwaves in our time, but it’s seeing their growth and journey as an appliance which has deepened our appreciation of them. We’ll be looking forward to seeing how they progress and what we can expect to see in the future!

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