Futuring and Innovation
James H. Grooms
Professor Rhonda Johnson
The Microwave Oven
In my quest in looking for familiar products that came into being through an accident, I was pleasantly surprised to discover quite a few products that fit this category. A well-known artificial sweetener that we call Saccharin was discovered in 1879 by a Johns Hopkins University researcher, Constantine Fahlberg, who forgot to wash his hands before eating lunch, he noticed that the bread he was eating was uncommonly sweet. Upon backtracking, he remembered spilling a chemical on his hands which was the source of this unusual sweetness. He later patented this chemical in 1884, but the popularity of Saccharin did not catch on until World War I, and even more so in the 60’s and 70’s when the brand name of “Sweet’N Low” appeared on labels and soft drinks used it in their diet drink offerings (9 Things Invented or Discovered by Accident, 2016).
The innovation that I think changed the world for the better and something that can be found in most American households is the microwave oven. This device has changed the way we cook our meals by bringing conveyance into the kitchen. This invention happened by pure chance when in 1945, Percy Spencer, a researcher at Raytheon in Waltham, MA noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted when he was in close proximity to a vacuum tube called a magnetron located in his lab. His fascination with this occurrence led him to experiment with popcorn. When it started to pop, Spencer knew that this process would become very important in the food industry (Schwartz, 2004).
In 1947 Raytheon built the first microwave oven and called it the Radarange. There were a few minor drawbacks to this new appliance – it was about 5 ½ feet tall and weighed 750 pounds, and cost close to $5,000. This device first became available to the home market in the early 1950’s, but due to its hefty price tag and large size, sales did not do too well. In 1967, almost 20 years after the introduction of the Radarange, a 120 volt counter top version was placed on sale for $495 and has gained in popularity ever since (9 Things Invented or Discovered by Accident, 2016).
Our first microwave oven was purchased in the mid 70’s from Sears and was in use for over 10 years. One thing that I noticed upon our microwave purchase was the inception of microwave stores. These stores offered a wide variety of microwave safe cookware and an assortment of safe utensils created with the microwave in mind. One of the big disadvantages of the newly introduced microwave ovens was their inability to brown meats and is still a problem today. Many manufacturers provided convection browning elements in their products, but it has been found that microwaves and metal do not mix.
The answer to the browning problem is now being provided in microwaveable meals. The food is pre-cooked and frozen. The microwave oven basically thaws and heats up the meals in mere minutes, this is a quick way to provide your family with dinner with very little hassle. Various packaging techniques are constantly being developed to extend the use of the microwave with newly introduced foods.
I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and when the microwave was first introduced, the lifestyle of everyone I know changed dramatically. Economically, both parents had to work to make ends meet and the microwave played a large part in making this new way of living tolerable. Today’s younger generation takes this technological breakthrough as common place and to not think twice about not having one available. Thankfully, this invention by accident is here to stay and will be improved upon as time goes by.
9 Things Invented or Discovered by Accident. (2016). How Stuff Works Web Site. Retrieved from http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/scientific-experiments/9-things-invented-or-discovered-by-accident.htm
Schwartz, E. I. (2004). Sparking the fire of invention. TECHNOLOGY REVIEW-MANCHESTER NH- 2004. Retrieved from http://jrichardstevens.com/articles/schwartzfireinvention.pdf