The microwave oven without a doubt has revolutionized the art of cooking. From its inception into households in the 1960’s, the microwave oven showed the potential of becoming a staple of modern cuisine not only in the U.S, but worldwide. However, the microwave’s introduction to American homes did not go smoothly. From the very beginning, the microwave was met with a wide array of feelings: amazement, skepticism, wariness, and even little bit of fear. All these emotions directly affected the microwave’s success in the market. However against all adversity, the oven diffused successfully in the U.S. The microwave had such a great diffusion that in 2014, the University of Carolina estimated that about 96% of American households have a microwave oven. But how did this happen? How was the microwave oven successfully diffused and accepted into American households?
The microwave oven’s story begins in the Boston area, under a company called Raytheon. Raytheon nowadays is primarily known as a U.S. defense contractor; it mostly manufactures missiles, weapons, and other electronics for the U.S. military, however in the 1940’s they dabbled into the culinary market. It was precisely during a research about the effects of magnetrons on military radars, that Dr. Percy Spencer, a self-taught engineer, noticed a peculiar event. Spencer noticed that a candy bar he had stored in his pocket had melted while working on the radars. With a piqued interest, Dr. Spencer gathered some popcorn kernels and put them near the tube emitting the microwaves. He watched as the kernels jumped and soon popped into full-fledged popcorn. Curiously, the microwave and its most famous companion, the microwavable popcorn, were invented at around the same time. Spencer continued his research with different foods, until he came to a reasoning for all these phenomena. He believed that the melting of his candy bar and the popping of the corn kernels occurred because they were all exposed to low emissions of microwaves. Spencer began to construct a metal box with an opening, in which food could be placed inside it and exposed to microwaves so that the waves could heat up the food. With this crafty little invention, Spencer had invented the first microwave oven.
This act of accidentally coming up with an innovation, while actively searching for another distinct one is called serendipity. This phenomenon is surprisingly common in the history of innovation. Items like post it notes, the hair-restorer Rogaine, and Penicillin are a few of the many innovations that came to fruition merely by chance.
Raytheon made quick work of Spencer’s invention and began perfecting and refining it. By 1946, the company had gotten a patent that specified the use of the microwave oven, “exposing the foodstuff […] to said field for a period of time sufficient to cook the same to a predetermined degree”. This “beta” microwave oven was given the name of Radarange and it hit the markets in 1947. The Radarange was completely different to our current perception of what a microwave is. The device was five and a half feet tall, weighed over 750 pounds, and was extremely expensive, costing about $5000 each (more than $56,000 in current dollars).
With the product already in the market, Raytheon began the slow process of diffusing the Radarange into the public. Everett Rogers, a sociologist and innovation expert, defines diffusion as “the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system”. Diffusion relates to the ways a product is presented by the innovator to the public and how said innovation is accepted by an audience over time. Time is an essential aspect of diffusion; the public will rarely accept an innovation overnight. The acceptance of an innovation can be from just a few months to a few years, and as we’ll see with the microwave, maybe even a few decades.
Due to its massive size and weight, Raytheon came to the idea of marketing the Radarange as a machine for industrial use. This meant that instead of presenting the Radarange as a product for homeowners, it was instead shown as a product for restaurants and hotels. It was precisely in a hotel in Boston, the Hotel Statler (now known as The Boston Park Plaza), where Raytheon gathered press and radio officials on May 20th, 1947 for the first public Radarange cooking. The Boston Globe reported that Raytheon cooked in front of the audience a complete dinner in just three minutes and 45 seconds. Comparing it to something out of a Superman comic strip, the Boston Globe wrote, “There wasn’t a man or woman in the assemblage who didn’t hold his or her breath,” in anticipation during the event. Entrée after entrée, the Radarange amazed the public with the speediness and the tastiness of its cooking.
However, even though the Radarange had an overwhelmingly positive first impression on the reporters and attendees at the Hotel Statler, it failed to sell in the market. Restaurant and hotel owners were reluctant to buy the Radarange because not only was it expensive to buy, it was also expensive to operate. See, the Radarange had one giant flaw: its cooling system. Current microwave ovens have cooling fans that prevent them from overheating. If a microwave overheats, its internal components can stop working properly and eventually break, causing the microwave oven to be completely unusable. The Radarange did not have a cooling fan; instead, it depended on a water cooling system to prevent it from overheating. This water cooling system provided the internals of the device with a gush of cold water in order to cool them off. However, this meant that the Radarange was not only going to appear in the electricity bill, but also in the water bill. If the Radarange only depended on electricity, restaurants and hotels would have been able to afford operating it on a daily basis. However, its usage of both water and electricity made its operational cost too much for business owners.
Since the Radarange dependence on water was a big complaint, Raytheon began selling them to spaces where water wouldn’t be that big of an issue. For example, The New York Times reported on December 28th, 1949 that a Radarange was installed in a ship from the North Atlantic passenger trade. This Radarange operated under the inspection of Chef Otto Bismark, and cooked an assortment of seafood and meets to hungry travelers. Another Radarange was installed in the NS Savannah, the first nuclear powered cargo/passenger ship, in 1954.
This first stage of the microwave oven, the Radarange stage, shows us how tough the diffusion of an innovation can be. From an outsider looking within perspective, the usefulness of having a device that cooks food almost instantaneously is very apparent. However, during the almost 10 years the Radarange was made available in the market, the machine only got limited acceptance by the public. The people that accepted the microwave oven at this time are what Rogers calls “early adopters”. These early adopters are usually people or organizations of a higher social status, like the Hotel Statler and the North Atlantic ship, or those with the financial security to be able to take risks with early-stage innovations, like the NS Savannah.
In 1954, Raytheon decided to introduce their microwave oven into the commercial market. They released the 1161 Radarange, a smaller and cheaper version of the original Radarange, and although it no longer relied in a water cooling system, it also failed to make a big impact in the market. In 1955, Raytheon licensed its technology to the Tappan Stove Company. The Tappan Stove Company continued to make the microwave oven even more compact and cheaper.
Although these newer versions of the microwave oven were a step in the right direction, the device needed one last push to become popularized. This last push came in the 1960’s in the form of Litton Industries, an electronic company based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Litton Industries saw the work Raytheon was doing with their Radarange and decided to join the market by manufacturing their own microwave oven. The Litton microwave is notable for not only being the first competitor Raytheon had in the microwave business, but also for being the ones that came up with the current appearance microwave ovens currently have. While the Radarange models’ appearance was more reminiscent of a refrigerator with its tall and bulky structure, the Litton microwave was shorter and wider— closely resembling our current day microwave ovens.
In 1965, in response to Litton’s recent inception into the microwave oven market, Raytheon acquired Amana Refrigeration, an Iowa based company that manufactured refrigerators and freezers. With the help of this company, Raytheon introduced in 1967 the Amana Radarange, their own countertop microwave oven closely resembling Litton’s. With a competitor in the market, Raytheon needed to step up their game in order to remain as the top-seller of microwave ovens so before releasing the Amana Radarange to the public, Raytheon went through a year-long effort to educate retailers about the uses and settings of their new “home friendly” microwave oven. They also hired “specially trained home economists” to help families install the oven and cook them their first microwaved meal. These specially trained economists were on call for 24 hours the first year the oven launched to help their clients in any way possible with their new microwave ovens.
The Amana Radarange had a cost of about $495 ($3200 current U.S. dollars) and according to Dr. John M. Osepchuk, microwave historian, its relative low price was essential in the popularization and acceptance of microwave ovens in America. As Osepchuk points out, the overwhelming success of the Amana Radarange convinced other companies like Tappan and GE to manufacture and sell their own microwave ovens. With a great demand and a great supply, prices steadily decreased throughout the early 1970’s, reaching all-time lows in the late 1970’s when Japanese imports started to dominate the market.
During this stage in the microwave oven’s life, the Amana stage, consumers were well informed about the advantages of having a microwave oven at home. As Rogers points out, at around this time the microwave oven had reached its “take off” phase and was being successfully diffused throughout the U.S. In the year 1970, about 40,000 units were sold in the U.S— five years later, that number grew to around a million. During these times, the microwave oven wasn’t just a luxury item that only upper class citizens could afford. Its smaller build and low price also made the microwave oven accessible to middle class households.
However, it was during this time, when the microwave oven was beginning to sell well in the US that its largest threat appeared: fear of radiation. In March 7th, 1973, Consumer Reports released a report that stated one simple point: “All microwave ovens are leaking radiation”. Consumer Reports also encouraged customers not to buy microwave ovens until all manufacturers eliminated any and all traces of radiation leakage in their devices. This news report spread like wildfire throughout all of America. People began throwing away and destroying their microwaves for fear of becoming ill due to the supposed radiation they leaked. Tensions were so high, that the FDA had to come out a week later with a press release to state that the risk in microwave ovens is “overstated” and “exaggerated”. Dr. Sol Michaelson, a university biophysicist who was invited to answer questions regarding radiation leakage, said: “In millions of hours of use, there has never been a case of injury to humans – nor will there be as long as microwave ovens meet present Federal safety standards.” Fears surrounding the microwave oven calmed down after the FDA’s press release, however these allegations persisted in the minds of consumers. Even to these days, there are those that believe that microwave ovens still leak radiation.
With time, these allegations were slowly forgotten and nowadays are only remembered as myths and misconceptions. However, these accusations did have an unintended consequence on the microwave oven market. The public outcry about the supposed “radiation leakage” caused the FDA to impose even stricter microwave emission limits. These stricter limits prompted manufacturers to continue researching and modifying aspects of the microwave oven. Additions like the Rotawave cooking system (the spinning axis microwave ovens have to heat the food properly from all sides) was introduced during this time!
The microwave oven’s tale of acceptance in American households is almost an underdog story. With initial poor sales and a discontent public, the microwave oven’s future as an innovation looked bleak. However, as time went on and the device got tweaked and refined the public slowly grew to accept the microwave oven. The introduction of the Litton microwave caused microwave oven prices as a whole to lower and become more accessible to middle class citizens. The 1970’s radiation scare almost put the microwave oven in peril, however with quick intervention from the FDA, the accusation were put to rest. The microwave oven has since become a staple of American households. It’s almost impossible to imagine a modern American house without a microwave oven. To think, an accidental discovery completely revolutionized the way cooking is done forever.