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Colton Lewis, 12th Grade, Savannah High School, Savannah, MO

Cooking Food with Radiation

As a soon to be starving and dirt poor college student, I am wondering how my fellow students and I will come by our next meal. Will we really have to eat Ramen Noodles every night for a few years? More importantly, how will the food be prepared? There is no certain answer to the first question, but I know the answer to the second. Whether I eat at McDonald’s or shell out for cafeteria food that is only slightly better than that served in high school, the grouchy, wrinkled woman behind the counter will likely use an invention that I already use every day. That invention is the microwave oven, and it has affected my life more than any other World War II invention.

At this time, it may not seem clear why I chose something as common as the microwave. I was as surprised as anyone, but when I was researching inventions from the era, I decided that I would measure the impact of the invention by how often and seriously it has affected my life. If my family is like most families nowadays, we never have a fresh cooked meal more than two nights in a row. The rest of the time, nuking leftovers in the microwave is the way things are done. I can recall heating up some refrigerated mashed potatoes and gravy last night. It was so helpful. Instead of inconveniencing a family member by making them come home early to spend hours cooking, we just popped the Tupperware container in the microwave for three minutes and everyone had a meal that they could enjoy.

It seems so strange to my generation that there was a time before the microwave when families that wanted a hot meal had to make it themselves. The invention that changed all that didn’t happen overnight. Like so many inventions, it happened by accident followed with scientific curiosity. Percy Spencer, a self-taught engineer, was working on radar related research for the Raytheon Corporation around 1946. Specifically, he was working with a device called the magnetron (could easily be the name of the coolest transformer ever), which emits microwave radiation. While he was working one day, Spencer noticed something strange. The candy bar in his pocket had melted. Knowing that the only thing that could have affected it was the magnetron he was working with, Spencer devised a few experiments.

First he put popcorn kernels near the device. I may not have been there, but I bet his whole face absolutely lit up when the first corn began to pop. He knew he had a new invention on his hands. The only thing left to do was to show it to someone. With a colleague, Spencer tried heating up an egg. The egg’s temperature rose so fast that the internal pressure caused it to splatter all over his partner’s face. Spencer reasoned that if this device could cook corn and eggs, it could cook any food.

He fashioned a metal box to hold the magnetron and the food it would cook, and thus the “speedy weenie” project, named for how fast it could cook a hot dog, was born. Raytheon filed a patent for the cooking technology on October 8, 1945, but the microwave had a long way to go before it would be accepted by the public. The very first microwave built, called the Radarrange, was almost six feet tall and weighed about 340 kilograms. It also cost $5,000, which would be about $64,000 in today’s money. The microwave didn’t really sell much until 1967 when Amana Corporation, recently bought by Raytheon, came out with countertop model that was available for only $495.

By that time, other companies had gotten ahold of the basic technology and had begun producing their own microwave ovens. Late in the sixties, Litton Industries introduced the short, wide microwave that is so ubiquitous today. After the new oven was shown in a Chicago trade show, microwave sales began to take off. During 1970, 40,000 microwaves were sold in the United States, and that number quickly grew to one million in 1975. Numbers have only gone up since. Only one percent of United States households owned a microwave in 1971. Now, the microwave oven is found in ninety percent of households.

The adoption of the microwave in our daily lives, as with all new technologies, created new things for the media to claim is hurting you. No matter what you may have heard from the guy with the aluminum foil hat, there are no real hazards to some microwave exposure. There are several benefits that a microwave oven has over conventional cooking. Microwaves heat food without becoming hot themselves, so they remove potential fire hazards. They do not blacken food with small amounts of carcinogenic char. They also preserve nutrients in food better than conventional cooking because of the shorter amount of time the food is exposed to heat.

Nevertheless, no matter how safe the microwave is, there is no excuse not to observe common safety practices. Don’t put metal in the microwave. It may look as beautiful as the fireworks on July 4, but the sparks aren’t good for you or the microwave. Other than that, observe the safety practices commonly associated with electrical appliances and you should never be harmed by a microwave.

From its invention, inspired by radar technology, to modern day, it is difficult to find an invention from World War II that has directly and tangibly affected our lives as much as the microwave oven. The device is quick, easy to use, and found in households all around the world. Without the microwave, where would my food come from?


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Student Travel – WWII Educational Tours
High school and college students, learn the leadership principles that helped win WWII on a trip to France or during a weeklong residential program in New Orleans. College credit is available, and space is limited.

See You Next Year! HS Yearbooks from WWII
Collected from across the United States, the words and pictures of these yearbooks present a new opportunity to experience the many challenges, setbacks and triumphs of the war through the eyes of America’s youth.

The Victory Gardens of WWII
Visit the Classroom Victory Garden Project website to learn about food production during WWII, find lesson plans and activities for elementary students, get tips for starting your own garden and try out simple Victory Garden recipes!

The Science and Technology of WWII
Visit our new interactive website to learn about wartime technical and scientific advances that forever changed our world. Incorporates STEM principles to use in the classroom.

Kids Corner: Fun and Games!
Make your own propaganda posters, test your memory, solve puzzles and more! Learn about World War II and have fun at the same time.

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