Microwaves are magical, wonderful things. They heat, they cook, they reheat, they defrost. But surely they haven't always been so great, right? They must have once electrocuted children, nuked harmless housewives and mutated professors, right? Well, apparently not. Not in the history they'd have us believe, anyway...

It all started in 1946 when Dr Percy Spencer was messing around with radars and the newfangled magnetron, a vacuum tube. Upon discovering the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted, Dr Percy was suspicious (we can assume it happened in winter as he thought melted chocolate was a weird thing). He followed a hunch and put some corn kernels near the magnetron. They popped, like popcorn, and his scientific interest was raised. The next day, the good Doctor placed an egg near the tube, and it was found to be hot... then it exploded.

Dr Spencer realised this magnetron tube was a huge deal, as it had the ability to heat things immensely in spite of it working in a low-density energy level. He realised things could be heated even more if they were enclosed in a metal box from which the magnetrons rays were unable to escape. As a result, Dr S made such a box and noted with interest the higher density electromagnetic field within it. In other words, the rays bounced around inside, couldn't get out, and cooked whatever was in the metal box.

Six months later, Raytheon (an electrical engineering company) put a patent on the first microwave. In 1947, the microwave was being used in an experimental capacity in a Boston restaurant. That first heatbox cost $5000, weighed over 750 pounds and was 5'6" (for the metric kiddies, that's around 340kgs and 1.6 metres), and had to be cooled with a water system.

That same year, engineers got rid of that pesky water cooling system and downsized the microwave to fridge-sized. The "Radarange" was the first common oven and cost around $2500. This was followed by the first domestic oven, sold around 1953 by Tappan, which was a steal at just $1295.

It took more then another decade before the microwave was adjusted to the public need, as it was 1967 before the benchtop 100 volt $500 microwave was invented.

In 1976, things had certainly changed. 60% of American homes had a mini-nuke oven (if you didn't, what was with your family? How did you cook, what did you eat?). Today the microwave is smaller than ever- so small that some ovens, like mine, are too tiny for a regular sized plate to turn around in there. Of course, following the laws of technological advancement, it was cheap, so I can't expect much.

Now we've got convection microwaves, heat and moisture probes and microwaves which give the recipe for various foods on their little LCD screens. Whatever next?

Microwave trivia:

  • Dr Spencer was a self-taught scientist- he didn't even finish high school. In spite of this, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999 ( don't stay in school, kids!).
  • According to www.gallawa.com/microtech, microwaves used in microwave ovens oscillate at 2450 million cycles per second (MHz). On the radar band, this is slightly above the frequencies used for UHF TV channels, and safely within the NON-ionizing region. Still, if you exposed an eyeball to microwaves for too long, it would cook like an egg. Mmmmm. Fried eye.
  • Microwaving water alone will not result in "exploding water". An urban myth has circulated around, telling of the dangers of microwaving a cup of water as the water will explode into the face of whoever gets the cup out of the microwave. No, it won't. Calm down.

info from www.gallawa.com/microtech and www.urbanlegends.com