Why Do We Have Microwaves?

(Last Updated On: March 3, 2022)

Microwaves are really one of the prime objects of convenience. They’re also something we all probably take for granted, and also something that we like never think about. At least until it’s like 1 AM and we want to eat but definitely feel too lazy to like cook. Also if you don’t remember the invention of the microwave, you’ve probably never seen a microwave ad. Let’s take a moment to appreciate our trusty food-heaters, then. Why do we have microwaves?

Further Reading: Why Doesn’t Ice Melt in the Microwave?

Microwave Advertising Was Weird

  Obviously, microwave ads do exist. You can go look up old ones from the 70s or 80s. But microwave sales in America were on the decline for a long time. Which sounds weird, until you think about it for five seconds–90% of Americans own one. Microwaves aren’t really like phones or something either, they tend to last as long as your place does and you don’t really “upgrade” them. Also, microwaves aren’t made to fall apart every other year in order to get you to buy a new one. Go to a country where people are still adopting microwaves though, you’ll definitely see some ads. 

Don’t give big-microwave any ideas.

It also doesn’t help that appliances used to be sorted between what were called “brown” and “white” goods. “Brown” goods were named so because they used to come with wood finishes, like microwaves or CRTs. Later, they came to be made of black plastic. “White” goods were coated in white enamel–those typically were things like washing machines and fridges. You’d think this was a material thing–but it was actually just a weird 40s-50s gender roles thing. “White” goods were largely immobile monoliths, and their function associated with domesticity. Thus, Americans decided these were going to be marketed exclusively towards women (“brown” goods were conversely marketed towards). Because people in the 40s and 50s felt the need to gender their appliances. Their “brown” counterparts were typically seen as luxury tech-enthusiast things, like televisions. The microwave was lumped into the latter. 

Turns out, men didn’t want the microwave, so manufacturers pivoted hard to sell them as built-in kitchen appliances, rather than this weird little neat thing you might own. 

Marketing is weird.

Anyway, we used to microwave hamsters

No, really. We did this for science. Not like that weird friend you had that microwaved their pet, though.

You might be familiar with the story of how the microwave was invented by accident thanks to a dude named Percy Spencer. He was working on magnetrons in the 1940s; the plan was to use microwave radiation in radar systems. When Spencer realized a means of mass producing magnetrons–he also realized that a candy bar in his pocket melted. Testing other foods, Spencer realized that the microwave was applicable to other things. Total sidebar, though, it does also mean that Spencer microwaved himself a bit. 

The first microwaves were these massive fridge-sized boxes used in commercial kitchen, not something you’d ever put in your home. Microwaves in the sense of “what goes in your kitchen” didn’t come around until the 1970s.

So what was happening in between? 

Well in the 1950s scientists were studying the effects of cold on animals. Particularly hamsters or rats. They’d freeze them solid and try to bring them back using spatulas or hot light. As you can imagine, it wasn’t very effective and often burned the poor little guy. 

Then this guy named J. E. Lovelock had the idea of stuffing one of the frozen rodents into a microwave to bring them back. So he secured a small magnetron and put it in a smaller faraday cage–about the size of a residential microwave. 

For starters, it worked. Also, it worked for food. 

Also, don’t freeze and microwave a pet. It’s not cool and you need antifreeze. 

Speaking of microwaving hamsters, see if you can recognize some rodents here. Don’t microwave them.



About Kyler 728 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.