Beep boop ZAP! Did you know that the microwave oven was invented by accident? From space-age luxury item to everyday appliance, microwaves have come a long way in the 76 years they’ve been around. Join Joy and cohost Aaliyah for the history of the gadget that made it possible for us to heat our breakfast burritos or mac and cheese bowls in mere seconds. Plus, your hosts bust some microwave myths and tackle a brand new round of First Things First!
[KNOCKING] [DOOR CREAKING OPEN]
JOY DOLO: Aliyah, you're here! Huzzah! Come, we must make haste for the tournament is about to begin!
ALIYAH: The tournament?
JOY DOLO: Indeed. I have invited you here on this fine morn to view two mighty champions on the field of battle. Behold!
ALIYAH: Joy, why is your microwave decorated like a medieval castle? And why are there two marshmallows in there with toothpicks poking out of them?
JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] My dear friend, these are no mere marshmallow morsels. They're brave knights and defenders of the kitchen pantry, each armed with a mighty lance.
ALIYAH: The toothpicks?
JOY DOLO: Yeah, they're lances. It's like real medieval jousting, where knights on horseback charge straight at each other and try to knock their opponent off their horse, except here, the knights are marshmallows. The lances are toothpicks. And there are no horses because you can't put a horse in a microwave. [LAUGHS]
Anyway, [CLEARS THROAT] I present to you, Sir S'mores-a-lot and Duke Mallow of the Marshes.
ALIYAH: Greetings, good sirs.
JOY DOLO: They shall test their bravery in a joust for when I press this button, thanks to the mighty power of the microwave, each competitor will expand, becoming a large and fearsome blob.
ALIYAH: So microwaving marshmallows makes them turn into giant puffy goo balloons?
JOY DOLO: Yup. They puff up. And whomever of these sugary soldiers is first to poke the other with his toothpick lance, shall be declared the champion. Let us count down to combat. My dear Aliyah, will you do the honors?
ALIYAH: I would love to, Lady Joy. Let the joust begin in 3, 2, 1, go!
JOY DOLO: Sir S'mores-a-lot with an early lead, he's puffing up like a sugary hot air balloon, like a puffer fish watching Jaws, like a delicious little beach ball.
ALIYAH: But Duke Mallow is not far behind. His legs is poking precariously at Sir S'mores-a-lot.
JOY DOLO: What a battle, what drama, what--
Oh, boy. What a mess.
ALIYAH: Looks like both knights have become surprising sticky.
JOY DOLO: Welcome to Forever Ago from APM Studios, the history show where we explore the before. I'm Joy Dolo.
ALIYAH: And I'm Aliyah. Today, we're talking about one of our favorite kitchen appliances-- the microwave!
JOY DOLO: Yeah. I'm no professional chef. But thanks to the microwave, I can whip up a delicious breakfast burrito or double cheddar mac and cheese bowl in no time.
ALIYAH: It sure does make cooking some things a lot easier and quicker. I feel like the microwave has been around for, well, forever. But it's actually a pretty recent invention.
JOY DOLO: Yeah, the microwave was invented less than a hundred years ago. And now, tons of people use them every day. Do you have a microwave, Aliyah?
ALIYAH: Yes, I do.
JOY DOLO: You do have one. What do you use it for?
ALIYAH: Usually, I use it for-- so sometimes, it's heating up leftovers but not all the time for like school lunches and then like ramen noodles and like popcorn, so like that.
JOY DOLO: So what's the-- what's your favorite thing to make in the microwave?
ALIYAH: I think it has to be-- this is very specific. But--
JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS]
ALIYAH: --it has to be tender white popcorn.
JOY DOLO: Tender white popcorn?
ALIYAH: It's so good. It's lightly salted. Oh, my gosh.
JOY DOLO: Is it tender? Is it like soft popcorn? [LAUGHS] Is it all in the title?
ALIYAH: It's kind of like-- it's just in the name. It's not super soft. But it's like regular popcorn. It's just not buttery or it's not kettle corn. It's lightly salted. It's so good.
JOY DOLO: That's so good. I have to try that out. Have you ever tried to make something in the microwave and made like a huge mess?
ALIYAH: Oh, definitely. So there's actually two times. So the first time. I was making Kraft mac and cheese--
JOY DOLO: Oh, yeah.
ALIYAH: --in the cup. The cup ones, they're so good.
JOY DOLO: Yeah.
ALIYAH: And it overflowed in the microwave. And there was just like water everywhere. And my dad had (LAUGHINGLY)to clean it up.
JOY DOLO: Thanks, Dad.
ALIYAH: And then the second time, I was making ramen noodles. And I forgot to put the water in and put them in the microwave. And I smelt something burning, so I paused the video I was watching. And I got them out. And I was like, oh, no. They were burnt. And my mom had to put them outside because they were way too strong.
JOY DOLO: Yeah. Were they like smoking, like fire?
ALIYAH: Well, it wasn't fire. But they were literally black. In the middle of it, it was black. And it was smoky.
JOY DOLO: Oh, my gosh. Note yourself, do not put microwave ramen noodles without water. [LAUGHS] Well, our favorite kitchen doodad, the microwave, really owes its start to the end of World War II in 1945.
World War Ii was a massive war between lots of different countries. Here in the United States, inventors worked really hard to come up with new technology to help out the military.
ALIYAH: Yeah, like codebreaking computers, powerful airplane engines, artificial rubber-- those kinds of things.
JOY DOLO: But when the war ended, the companies making those things needed to find new ways to use their ideas. If they didn't need to make things for the army, maybe they could use that same technology to make things for the public.
TED: Listen, fellas. We've got to take our inventions and make them new and useful for the American people. Frank, how's it going with that jet engine?
FRANK: Oh, not great, Ted. Tests of the engine as a super fast hairdryer have only had negative results.
TED: Oh, sorry to hear that. Those eyebrows will grow back, though-- probably. Mm, any breakthroughs with the supercomputer?
SCIENTIST: We've spent weeks feeding it information and crunching the numbers. I spent nights down in the computer room, sleeping on the floor, waiting for results. I went through more than 300 rolls of paper printouts. I've never had so many paper cuts in my life. But we did finally confirm our initial hypothesis.
TED: Ooh, what's that?
SCIENTIST: Boss, I'm happy to report that 2 plus 2 does in fact equal 4.
TED: [SIGHS] Great job, everyone. Great job.
JOY DOLO: One of the things those scientists were trying to use in different ways was radar. That stands for Radio Detection And Ranging.
ALIYAH: You might have heard meteorologists talk about radar because it's used for predicting the weather.
JOY DOLO: Yeah, it's a technology that lets a computer see objects by bouncing a special type of radio wave off of them. The computer can tell where that object is, how fast it's moving, and where it's going just using radio waves.
ALIYAH: But it turns out, they can do more than track weather. Scientists discovered these radio waves had another secret superpower. They could cook food. And that discovery was a total accident.
JOY DOLO: Or maybe it was serendipity, like the time I accidentally found out that peanut butter is a pretty good hair conditioner. Anyway, the fortuitous discovery that radar waves could cook food was made by a smart cookie named Percy Spencer.
ALIYAH: Joy, wait. We can ask Percy about the first microwave ovens. I was on my favorite website, ILoveMicrowaves.com, and I read you can put a special code into the keypad and then Percy Spencer will talk to you through the number screen.
JOY DOLO: That's my favorite website, too! But the inventor of the microwave is going to appear on the microwave screen? Seems kind of sus.
ALIYAH: We just have to hold down the 4--
--and then 6, 2, 3.
Open and close the door.
[DOOR CLICKING OPEN]
Stand on your left-- no, right foot. Hop in a circle.
JOY DOLO: You know, Aliyah, you can't believe everything you read on the internet.
ALIYAH: Press the baked potato button twice.
And enter 1, 9, 4, 7.
PERCY SPENCER: Hello, folks. Percy Spencer here. What can I do for you?
ALIYAH: Hey! Check it out, a little guy on the screen.
JOY DOLO: Well, butter me up and call me tender white popcorn. It worked! Hi, Percy. I'm Joy, and this is Aliyah. How did you get on that little old screen?
PERCY SPENCER: Oh, I'm not the real Percy. I'm just a program that contains all his memories and personality traits. Now, I call them Percy-analody traits.
ALIYAH: Cool, big fans. Love your work. We were wondering how you discovered that microwaves can heat up food.
PERCY SPENCER: Oh, I never get tired of that story. There I was in 1945, in the lab at Raytheon, the company that made radar machines for the US Army. I had a peanut-clustered candy bar in my pocket.
ALIYAH: Yum, I love a pocket snack.
JOY DOLO: Me too. I have a whole roast beef sandwich in my pants' pocket for later.
PERCY SPENCER: Pocket snacks are the best. And I always carried peanut butter candy bars with me so I could go outside on my lunch breaks and feed the squirrels. They're my favorite animal. I just love their twitchy little tails and their tiny noses and the way they can scamper up and down and sideways on tree trunks.
I named my favorite two squirrels Fred and Millie. They just loved peanuts. They'd come right up to my head and just eat it--
ALIYAH: [CLEARS THROAT] What about the microwave?
PERCY SPENCER: [CLEARS THROAT] Oh, right. Well, yes. As I was standing in front of one of our radar machines, I realized my candy bar was a melty mess. I figured the invisible energy waves coming from the machine must have heated it up.
JOY DOLO: It sounds like some kind of wizardry, but it's science. Those radar energy waves bonk into food, and the food absorbs that energy as heat.
ALIYAH: And voila! Hot, gooey pizza bagels, steaming bowls of soup-- wow. I'm hungry. Anybody else hungry?
PERCY SPENCER: Right. But first, we had to make sure it wasn't a fluke. So I did some tests to see if the energy waves really could heat up other food, like popcorn and eggs. And bing bang boom, they could! So that's how we ended up building our first microwave. It wasn't like your little gadget over here. It was 6 feet tall and weighed 750 pounds.
JOY DOLO: Wow. That's as heavy as 75 house cats or 150 bags of flour.
PERCY SPENCER: Or 500 squirrels. Gee, I'd love to hang out with 500 squirrels. Can you imagine? Oh. We'd climb up trees and steal seeds from bird feeders together and snuggle together on the couch. Maybe we could train some of them to sit on my head like a furry hat. [LAUGHS] Oh, sorry. Right, microwaves.
ALIYAH: I learned from ILoveMicrowaves.com that the waves in microwave ovens are special because they can pass through some things, like glass, paper, and plastic. But they're absorbed by other things, like food. That's why you can heat up your leftovers on a paper plate and only the food gets hot.
PERCY SPENCER: Leftovers? But the microwave is for cooking. Don't you use it for making delicious roast duck or a leg of lamb with mint jelly? Microwaves were supposed to revolutionize home cooking, help the home chef make a fancy five-course meal lickety split.
JOY DOLO: It did, but not in a roast duck or a leg of lamb kind of way, more like heat up a frozen bean and cheese burrito. Well, heat up the sides. Why is the middle always still cold? So the first microwave was a fancy kitchen appliance? I have one. Am I fancy?
PERCY SPENCER: Oh, I'd say. This was a luxury item at first. It costs about $3,000 back then. That would be more than $33,000 today. And it was marketed as part of the futuristic lifestyle of the stylish, rich bachelor.
BACHELOR: It's not always easy being a rich and successful bachelor. Stylish, rich bachelors like me don't cook. So I have to dine out at exclusive restaurants all the time. It can be exhausting.
Thank goodness for the Raytheon Radarange microwave oven. It fits beautifully in my enormous penthouse suite. Whenever I want to stay in for dinner, I just press a few buttons, and zap, a steaming hot plate of food prepared faster than a drive in my extremely fast and expensive sports car.
You too can eat like me, a rich and successful bachelor, with the Raytheon Radarange.
ALIYAH: Wow. Lots of people have microwaves now, not just extremely wealthy and stylish bachelors. So what changed?
PERCY SPENCER: Well, once other companies started making them, the prices went down. More Americans were starting to get their hands on these appliances. And advertising focused less on wealthy bachelors and more on busy housewives and working moms.
JOY DOLO: Hang on, I want to see what those ads look like.
Ooh, here's an old magazine ad from 1969. [CLEARS THROAT] Make the greatest cooking discovery since fire, the incredible Amana Radarange microwave oven. It sizzles a hamburger in 60 seconds, does a 5-pound roast in 37 and 1/2 minutes, cuts most cooking time 75%, heats only the food. The oven and your kitchen stay cool.
ALIYAH: Wow. Only 37 and 1/2 minutes to cook an entire roast. And to think, I've only been using microwaves to make tender white popcorn.
PERCY SPENCER: Yes. I really thought people would use the microwave for multi-course meals-- lobster bisque, scalloped potatoes, pork chops, peanut casserole for the neighborhood squirrels. I was sure that folks would use it to cook up their Thanksgiving turkeys.
ALIYAH: Microwavable foods have come a long way, Percy. Nowadays, there are tons of companies who make special frozen meals you can microwave. You can get everything from Pad Thai to pizza rolls-- maybe not a whole turkey, though. We use it more for reheating, not big fancy multi-course meals.
PERCY SPENCER: Shoot! I thought the future would be more exciting. Please tell me that at least you're using technology for really important things like jetpacks for squirrels. They deserve to soar through the sky.
JOY DOLO: I think scientists are still working on that.
PERCY SPENCER: Hey, I think I see some squirrels outside your kitchen window. Would you mind moving this microwave screen I'm in up a little from the counter onto the windowsill? I'd love to watch them. And maybe open the window-- or you could put me on the porch and put some peanuts inside the microwave. I'd love to feed those little scamps in my microwave belly.
JOY DOLO: Sure, Percy. Yeah, we can put you and your microwave outside.
PERCY SPENCER: Climb on in, squirrel friends!
Ehh, no? OK. No problem. You do you, squirlies. I'll just be here with-- wait, another microwave question is coming in from Pittsburgh. How long does it take to microwave a Thanksgiving turkey? Yes! Finally! I have to go. Good to meet you, friends. And good bye, my squirrels! Be safe out there!
JOY DOLO: Thanks, Percy.
ALIYAH: Wow. He really loves squirrels, huh?
JOY DOLO: Yeah, seems like he's nuts about them, huh?
JOY DOLO: Squirrel jokes? Huh? Maybe I should go out on a limb, and write a Nut-flix comedy special. I'm hilarious. Hey, Aliyah, while I think up more squirrel puns, how about we play a round of--
GROUP: (CHANTING)First Things First.
JOY DOLO: That's the game where we try to guess the order things came in history. Today, we're looking at kitchen inventions. They are-- TV dinners, dishwashers, and the electric toaster. So which do you think came first, which came second, and which came most recently in history? Aliyah, which one is oldest in your mind?
ALIYAH: I feel like dishwashers are the oldest. I don't know why.
JOY DOLO: Yeah?
ALIYAH: I feel like dishwashers are the oldest. I feel like because there's a lot of things from back then that were-- they weren't as advanced as they are now, but they were still there. So I think dishwashers came first and then TV dinners.
The reason I think TV dinners is second is because, well, I've heard that TV dinners were very common in the 1990s and the 1980s and stuff.
JOY DOLO: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense.
ALIYAH: Yeah. And then electric toaster, last, because I know who invented electricity. But I feel like electric toasters would be most recent because there wasn't a lot of electric things that were back then.
JOY DOLO: Yeah.
ALIYAH: So yeah.
JOY DOLO: That tracks. And then TV dinners, yeah, I know TV dinners from the kinds that you get at the store with like the little Salisbury steak or the chicken that you put in the microwave.
ALIYAH: I used to eat those.
JOY DOLO: You used to get those?
ALIYAH: I used to eat the ones with the brownies?
JOY DOLO: Oh, yeah. Those are so good. Have you ever had the chicken nugget ones?
ALIYAH: Oh, yeah. That's the one. It was like chicken nuggets, I think macaroni and cheese and a brownie. It was so good.
JOY DOLO: That is-- oh, my gosh. I'm getting hungry. OK.
ALIYAH: Me too.
JOY DOLO: OK. Let's continue with the game. Those are great guesses. Well, here are the answers at the end of the episode.
ALIYAH: You know, Joy, not everybody warmed up to the idea of a microwave right away.
JOY DOLO: Nice one. And you're right. By the late 1970s, they were becoming more and more popular. But plenty of people were worried that cooking in a microwave was unsafe.
BUST-A-MYTH: What up, Forever Ago? It's your boy, Bust-a-myth, here to check facts and rhyme to the max.
(RAPPING)Yo, I'm Bust-a-myth. And I get mad respect because I always make sure my story is correct. I got actual factual accuracy. So let me hear you say, um, actually.
BOTH: Um, actually?
BUST-A-MYTH: It's my catchphrase. When someone has a fact that they're sure is real, but it turns out they got the wrong information, I show up like, um, actually, and then hit him with a good stuff, the real, real, the actual factuals.
ALIYAH: Yeah, OK. Here's one for you, Mr. Myth.
BUST-A-MYTH: Please, call me Busta. Mr. Myth was my father, and also my grandfather, and his father. You get it?
ALIYAH: My friend told me one time that if you microwave your food, it turns radioactive. He was convinced his pizza pockets were going to give him superpowers if he ate enough of them, like Spiderman but with radioactive pizza pockets instead of spiders.
JOY DOLO: All the speed and power of a pizza pocket at his command.
BUST-A-MYTH: Give me an, um, actually!
OK. So energy can come in different forms, like light. Light is energy. Heat is energy. And energy can change the form it's in. Microwaves are a type of energy that we can't see or feel. When those waves hit food, they transfer their energy to that food. That's what heats things up. So your food won't be radioactive.
ALIYAH: Aww. My buddy's going to be disappointed. He really wanted to be radioactive Pizza Pocket Man.
JOY DOLO: OK. How about this one? I've heard that microwaving food destroys important vitamins and nutrients in food. So microwaving is less healthy than cooking on the stove or in the oven.
BUST-A-MYTH: That's another um-- you know what? Let's just skip the air horns and get to the facts, huh? Cooking does break some of the parts of the food that makes it good for us, like vitamins. The longer something cooks, the more it destroys those vitamins.
Microwaves cook food so quickly that there's less time for nutrients to break down. Sauteing or boiling breaks down way more nutrients. So microwaving food is actually, actually one of the healthiest ways to cook things like veggies.
ALIYAH: Wow, I had no idea.
JOY DOLO: Me neither. Maybe that's why I like microwaved broccoli so much. I can taste the vitamins.
ALIYAH: Can the energy waves go out of the microwave oven while it's on? My mom always tells me not to stand too close. I think she's worried it will cook my brain or something.
BUST-A-MYTH: As long as your microwave oven is in good condition and not damaged, you can tell your mom to breathe easy. Once that door is closed, nothing's coming out. But maybe don't press your face right up against the window to check on your nachos. Wait, what's that?
JOY DOLO: What's what?
BUST-A-MYTH: I can hear your neighbors talking. And one of them just said she heard the ducks' quack don't make echoes. You know that's a myth, right? I got to bust it. Keep the flavor, microwavers.
ALIYAH: OK, bye.
JOY DOLO: Bye, Busta.
The microwave was invented by accident after scientists were testing technology developed for World War II.
ALIYAH: And even though lots of people had doubts at first, Percy Spencer's accidental discovery has become one of the most popular kitchen appliances in the US. What a success story. I wonder what the next big kitchen invention will be. Ooh, I want it to be an oven mitt that dispenses pancake batter-- perfect pancakes and protective padding.
JOY DOLO: I love that. What about-- oh, OK, OK. So sometimes food can be too hot and sometimes it can be too cold. What if you don't want to spend all your time like Goldilocks waiting for the temperature to be just right? I present to you the lukewarminator, heats or cools your food to the ideal tepid temperature. Mm?
ALIYAH: That one has real potential. OK, OK. I have one more, the Picky Eater. It's like a tiny robot vacuum, but it scoops up the parts of foods that you don't like. You never have to be grossed out by mayonnaise on a sandwich again, Joy.
JOY DOLO: Sign me up. I'll take 10.
This episode was written by Anna Goldfield with production help from Molly Bloom, Nico Gonzales Wisler, Aron Woldeslassie, Rosie DuPont, Ruby Guthrie, Anna Weggel, and Marc Sanchez. It was edited by Sanden Totten and Shahla Farzan, sound design by Rachel Brees, theme music by Marc Sanchez.
Beth Perlman is our executive producer. We had engineering help from Derek Ramirez. The executive in charge of APM Studios are Chandra Kavati, Joanne Griffith, and Alex Schaffert. Special Thanks to Alex Simpson Dave Walton and Latifah
ALIYAH: Have a topic that you're itching to know the history of? Send it to us at foreverago.org/contact.
JOY DOLO: Yeah, we love hearing your ideas. Speaking of ideas, Aliyah, ready to hear if you have the right idea about First Things First?
JOY DOLO: OK. Drum roll, please.
BOTH: [IMITATES DRUMROLL]
JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] And oh, my goodness, the first one-- you got the first one right out of the gate. Dishwasher was the oldest.
JOY DOLO: It's patented--
ALIYAH: Oh my G--
JOY DOLO: Yeah, congratulations. You're so smart. It was patented in 1886. The type of dishwasher we recognize today with racks for dishes was invented by wealthy socialite, fancy lady, Josephine Cochrane. She was inspired by an earlier machine patented in 1850 that simply splashed water on dishes.
As a socialite, she was expected to host lots of dinner parties. And she was tired of her servants chipping her expensive dishes when they handwash them. She was tired of her servants chipping-- oh, she has such a hard life. Her servants were chipping her fancy dishes. Get out of here.
Just to make the machine wash dishes efficiently, Cochrane measured the width, height, and length of plates, cups, and saucers, and constructed little wire compartments for each piece of China to sit in. A motor-powered wheel that spun gently, squirting hot soapy water all over the dishes-- dishwasher, you got it. That's great.
The next one-- you said, dishwashers, TV dinner, and electric toaster? The next one actually was the electric pop-up toaster.
JOY DOLO: Yeah, that was patented in 1921.
ALIYAH: Oh my gosh.
JOY DOLO: Yeah, I know. A Minnesota mechanic named Charles Strite created an easy-to-use toaster designed for restaurants. A redesigned version was sold in 1926 by Waters Genter of Minneapolis under the brand name Toastmaster. This is also a great superhero name either for a bread-based crime fighter or someone who is really good at giving wedding speeches, the Toastmaster.
The toaster was invented a few years before pre-sliced packaged bread in 1928. That's incredible. Also, it's awesome that these are all Minnesota people, representing for my state.
ALIYAH: Wow, because that was very, very, very close to the Great Depression.
JOY DOLO: You're right. But last, but certainly not least, is TV dinners. And that was 1954. That was the first full year of production. Gerry Thomas, a salesman from the Swanson company-- they still make frozen food today, by the way-- noticed that the company had 260 tons of frozen turkeys left after the Thanksgiving season.
Oh, that makes sense. After Thanksgiving, what are you going to do with all the turkeys? The company didn't have a place to store that many turkeys. So they were being stored on refrigerated railroad cars that just traveled back and forth between Nebraska and the East Coast until they found a solution.
[LAUGHS] That's great. Gerry had the idea to add sides, like sweet potatoes and stuffing, and to serve a full dinner on a special tray with compartments for each food. The trays were aluminum and designed to be heated in the oven at first. Later, trays were made safe for the microwave. Look at all the stuff we learned today.
ALIYAH: Oh, my gosh.
JOY DOLO: What do you think about that? The TV dinners that we know and love with chicken nuggets started off with Thanksgiving.
ALIYAH: I did not know that. Really? I did not know that. They had that many tons-- just wow.
JOY DOLO: Yeah, frozen turkeys, 260 tons. And then they have this brilliant idea of just putting them in railroad cars and just having them travel back and forth until you figure out what to do with it. [LAUGHS]
ALIYAH: That's cool. That's a lot of tons. I didn't even know it was like-- it was way back then when they were made because I just thought they were made-- I didn't even know it was made from turkey from Thanksgiving, one.
And two, I didn't know that it was made in 1954. I thought it was made in the 1970s. And then they started booming in the '80s and '90s.
JOY DOLO: Yeah, yeah. It's been around for quite some time. And I think the TV was around there, too. So it's like buy one, get one kind of thing. We got TVs, we got TV dinners. Let's make it happen. That is innovative. OK. Good job, Aliyah. That was great, good guesses.
ALIYAH: Thank you.
JOY DOLO: We'll be back next week with a new episode, all about the year summer was canceled. See you next time. And thanks for listening.
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