September 15, 2017

Imagine a world without microwaved popcorn. Credit: Pascal / Flickr Creative Commons

Percy Spencer was naturally inquisitive. In 1910, he was just a teenager when electricity came to his community in rural Maine; he quickly figured out how it worked and installed it in a local factory.

When he grew up, Spencer worked to pump out radar equipment for Raytheon during World War II. He worked seven days a week as he kept trying to make improvements to the systems.
 
One day, as Spencer worked with a part of a radar called the magnetron, he noticed the candy bar in his pocket getting hot. This tiny detail led him to ask the fateful question: Would this happen to other foods?
 
He began experimenting with popcorn kernels, which started popping all over the room. Then he moved on to an egg. Inevitably, it exploded on a co-worker’s face.
 
Early microwave ovens – like other early technology – were not exactly consumer-friendly. They weighed 750 pounds, clocked in at six feet tall, and cost thousands of dollars.
 
Although microwaves were presented as a futuristic convenience in the late 1960s, they didn’t become household fixtures until the 1980s, after Spencer had passed away.

Without Spencer’s work on radar: no Hot Pockets, no nuking the leftovers, no neon-colored popcorn. It’s an America we’d hardly recognize.

This segment originally aired on January 29, 2015. It was rebroadcast and updated on September 16, 2017.

radar, Percy Spencer, history, Sci and Tech, innovation hub, Kara Miller, WGBH, pri

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