Vintage View: Celebrating 70 years of the microwave

Kya deLongchamps celebrates 70 years of the ‘high-frequency dielectric heating apparatus’ or the microwave oven

Rararange Amana promotion c.1968 with the many promised successes to enjoy in minutes. The price of $2,000 was a fortune for this unlikely feast.

There are many readers old enough to remember a “roasted” chicken being speared from the depths of a cream-coloured microwave oven and deposited proudly on the oil cloth.

The grey, rubber horror of it.

I only wish they had retained and applied the name of the first cooker to all cookers — the Radarange.

How Joe 90.

A self-taught engineer and businessman, CEO Percy LeBaron Spencer, of US company Raytheon, had a tough start, not achieving even a high school degree.

However, he had an innate, searing intelligence and by his death at 76 he was responsible for over 150 patents including the delivery of mass-produced magnetron vacuum tubes, essential in the development and application of radar and microwave energy.

Spencer had a sweet tooth, and carried pocked-candy around with him.

While touring one of the labs at Raytheon (presumably sucking up a good dose of wandering microwaves, which appeared not to have killed or maimed him), Percy found his beloved chocolate had melted into his suit lining.

He was intrigued and put a few popcorn kernels near the magnetron tube.

Switching it on, the popcorn cooked.

The team moved on to eggs, which exploded, spattering the room and horn-rimmed glasses.

The potential of this accidental discovery on the radar spectrum was clear, but the energy had to be safely and conveniently contained.

The magnetron tubing was combined with a hefty metal box with a door to increase the density of the short microwaves.

Trapped, they bounced randomly around inside when the unit was activated causing the molecules inside the added contents to vibrate and moisture to boil.

By 1947 Raytheon had patented and released the first commercial microwave oven.

It was water-cooled, as tall as a man and weighed in excess of 350kg — all for $54,000.

Innovative industrialists saw the microwave’s promise to swiftly heat and dry a range of materials from matchheads to roasted coffee, all delivered with an exciting lump of science.

The US military deployed some Raytheon microwave ovens, staging them on proudly navy submarines.

New, lighter, air-cooled microwave machines were embraced by commercial- scale kitchens and caterers primarily to reheat pre-prepared meals.

Professional chefs, despite glittering TV promotions indicating the contrary, knew the microwaves’ culinary limits.

The flavours produced and retained by conventional baking and frying couldn’t be exceeded, something overcome today by the combination oven.

Packaged food has been found to steam well in microwaves — a relatively new wonder straight from the freezer.

Like all visionary technology, the hot but ridiculous first museum pieces were refined and reduced in scale and cost.

The first domestic Amana Radarange (Raytheon acquired by Amana label) cost a small fortune, around $2,000 or $18,221 in today’s values (just shy of €16,300, the price of a couple of six oven AGAs).

The Japanese, always up for an inventive wonder at home, were mad about dancing particles and food that cooked itself in its own water content.

As the unit shrunk, they embraced the 100-115v microwave in their smaller homes for heating and snacking duties.

Surprisingly, only 25% of Americans owned a microwave even in the mid-1980s.

If you had a dishwasher in Ireland by now, you certainly had a microwave mounted on the counter. The price had fallen to about €2,000 in 1967 and about half that in 1977, still a big spend.

TV dinners intruded on staple home cooked meals.

A latch-key child couldn’t be trusted near a stove top, but they could operate a microwave wih a few push buttons.

They might occasionally suffer an ice-centred soup, but at least the oven housing was safely cool.

Some social commentators were appalled and even afraid of the microwave, some on health grounds, others wondering what this might do to nuke’ the family along with the frozen enchiladas.

Regardless, individual meals in minutes had an impact.

For working women, the convenience of the freezer meal pinged on to the microwave seemed like a blessing.

The reduction of major nutrients by microwave cooking has been largely debunked, but there remain some indicators that trace elements and antioxidants in some foods are best kept out of the cavity.

There are worried detractors, interested scientists and microwave haters who don’t want their food particles tickled by anything other than radiant or direct heat abound.

Terrifying accounts of gene altering, molecule punching and carcinogenic package chemical leaks has claimed to transfigure food to something else entirely.

There is all sorts of research and borderline weird science around the use of microwaves.

It’s worth noting that the Soviets banned them for the heating of food from 1976 to 1987.

The anti-EMF squad is particularly wary of the microwave oven, suggesting plug-in devices to sop up leakage and harmonise electrical fiends including that area around the oven.

Decades-old machines are still in use across Ireland and Britain, appearing occasionally with celebrity status in the press.

If you own a vintage microwave of even 10 years old, check the door, latches, and seals are pulling closed tightly when you use the machine, and give it the gentle goodbye at your local WEE recycling centre if it ever runs with the door open.

Keep the cavity and the sealing edges scrupulously clean.

Don’t stand right up against any operating oven and avoid looking into the cavity during use, as there is some (all be it anecdotal evidence) that this may contribute the development of cataracts.



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