In 1945, Percy Spencer, employed by Raytheon, was working on a radar unit when he noticed that it had somehow melted a bar of chocolate in his pocket. He was lucky it didn’t melt him. He used it next to cook popcorn, and then an egg - which exploded in the face of the engineers. On October 8th of 1945, 74 years ago, Raytheon filed a US patent for the new cooking process that Spencer had discovered, and the microwave oven was born.
The invention had British origins, in that it owed its existence to the cavity magnetron, developed to make shortwave radar possible in World War II. In 1940 Sir John Randall and Harry Boot invented a valve that could produce microwaves with a wavelength of 10cm. The magnetron was taken to the US by Sir Henry Tizard, a wartime scientific adviser, in exchange for wartime help. The US historian James Baxter later described it as “the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores".
Raytheon originally called their cooker a “Radarange,” and produced early models weighing 750 lb and costing $5,000 (£56,000 in today’s money). Over the years the weight and the price came down, especially after the Japanese firm Sharp entered the market in 1961. Now the table-top device is ubiquitous, used for cooking and for reheating previously cooked foods. They have pluses and minuses. Microwave cooking does not normally brown or caramelize food, lacking the high temperatures that do this, and therefore does not produce the flavours that browning or frying impart.
On the other hand, they are healthier in some respects. Microwaved food does not lose the nutrients lost to the water in boiling, and vegetables in particular retain more of their nutrients. Spinach, which loses 77% of its foliate when boiled, retains nearly all of it when microwaved. Bacon cooked in this way has significantly lower levels of carcinogenic nitrosamines than conventionally cooked bacon.
The story of the microwave oven illustrates a fact about free market capitalism that many commentators overlook. If you measure improvements in living standards by looking simply at wage rises over time, you are missing out on the fact that the wages buy more, and they buy better. If you measure the price of early colour televisions against today’s prices, adjusted for inflation, you achieve a comparison. But the real one is that it takes far fewer hours of work to pay for a colour TV today than it did then, and a modern colour TV is far better in many respects.
The same is true of many, if not most, of personal and household consumer goods. They take fewer man hours to afford, and they are much better than what was available before. Even if wages had stagnated, their buying power increases, and the goods they can buy bring increased convenience and opportunities. The iPhone in my pocket replaces the roomful of junk it would have taken 20 years earlier to perform everything it does, and it takes far fewer hours of work to buy it than it did to buy the junk.
Those who affect to sneer at consumer goods are missing out on what they now enable us to do, and the choices and opportunities they present. The microwave cooker enables us to spend less time cooking, if we wish, and more time in doing something we value more instead. That represents a gain in satisfaction.