“There is one thing I have never taught my body how to do and that is to
figure out at 6 A.M. what it wants to eat at 6 P.M.” – Erma Bombeck

Amen. And that’s why I’m wishing a very happy birthday to a  miraculous baby boomer, the microwave oven. Even though you were 67 last month, to me and I’m sure billions of others, you remain a forever-young marvel of speed, efficiency and, well, rescue, by turning around meals in mere minutes.

At our house, this able 1100 watt appliance seems always to be humming away. As a reluctant cook to begin with, the microwave releases me from the agony of trying to build consensus for the dinner menu. Everyone is free to have what they want to eat – as long as they prepare it themselves, something the microwave makes eminently possible, regardless of skill level.  Adios arm twisting, meltdowns and deal making. Acorn squash? 10 minutes of zapping. Fresh asparagus? Six minutes in a dish with a little water and the stalks are so perfectly firm, even Jacques Pepin would bestow his approving little smile. Popcorn to munch while watching a movie? Fluffy and evenly popped with  (to me) the incredible bonus of no oily pot to scrub afterwards.

Learning of the microwave’s birthday made me wonder about its backstory. Possibly, a weary mom of 12 had invented it, I thought.  Or,  it could  have been part of a plot, hatched by a brainy corporate scientist, to get women out of the kitchen – so they’d spend at the store.  (I think I’m channeling “Mad Men” here.)

But, in fact, as I found out, the microwave’s creation was something of a fluke. Its inventor was a brainy scientist, but one with an unusual – and poignant – story. Percy Spencer, 1894-1970, was an orphan — his father died when Spencer was a baby and his mother deserted a little while after. He didn’t finish grammar school. But his undimmable genius emerged in spite of these hardships, because, according to his grandson’s 1958 “Readers Digest” article,  Spencer, a “self-educated Maine farm boy, (was) filled with insatiable curiosity, and became one of the most respected experts in the complex field of electronics.”

However, in spite of many accomplishments, when it came to the microwave, Spencer basically stumbled on it though he was farsighted enough to immediately grasp this accident’s potential.

Here’s what happened. Turns out Spencer was hanging out in a lab where scientists worked with magnetrons, radar power tubes.  He noticed that, by standing near the tubes, a Mr. Goodbar he had stashed in his pocket had melted.  Intrigued, he sent someone out to buy popcorn kernels and eggs – both of which also cooked near the active magnetrons. Cut to the chase, Spencer quickly filed a patent and the microwave was born.

Without a doubt, Spencer’s surprise discovery has revolutionized cooking. And though I’m grateful to other life-changing inventions for releasing me from domestic drudgery (a special shout out goes to my washer and dryer) I have to admit the microwave tops my “most-appreciated” list. Because, as someone else incisively put it, “Food is my favorite meal.”

by Cornelia Fortier

Tell us which inventions you are most grateful for!

Comments are closed.