Five things about microwaves

by Dr Andi
Publish date
2 June 2011
Comments (6)

I was reminded by my mother the other day that I had once refused to eat microwaved food. It was the 1970s and I’m not sure if it was teenage rebellion or whether I was spooked by the thought of microwaves. Here are five things about microwaves - some are spooky but some are fascinating.

1. In 1945 Percy Spencer had an “Aha!” moment after a melted lolly. Percy was doing military research on radars when he noticed that the peanut choc treat in his pocket had totally melted. It was the first item of food to ever be microwaved and luckily it was a lab accident that ended well. He realised the goo in his pocket was due to the modified radio waves - or microwaves - that he was working on.

Early microwave oven An early commercial microwave on display at the House Secrets exhibition. This is a 1959 Swedish Husqvarna, Electronic 2001 ‘Cupol’. (I suppose the number ‘2001’ must have seemed like a space age term in 1959).
Image: Andi Horvath
Source: Museum Victoria

2. The mid 1970s became a microwave bonanza and they began selling like hot cakes. Up until then, microwaves had been used in the food industry, restaurants and even submarines. But it wasn’t until the various components, including the new microprocessor, had come down in price and early myths about radiation were dispelled that the commercial domestic market finally took off.

Microwave sales display A salesman looking to make a bonanza of a commission. From the State Electricity Commission of Victoria collection, Museum Victoria. (MM 009529).
Source: Museum Victoria


3. Microwaves work by jiggling water and fat molecules. A rather unattractive metal box called a ‘magnetron’ is at the heart of every microwave oven; the rest is just insulated casing. The magnetron generates the microwaves that jiggle molecules so fast that they heat up the food.

  Magnetron The magnetron - rather a good name for a super hero or a grunge band, don’t you think?
Image: Andi Horvath
Source: Museum Victoria

4. Some things don’t belong in a microwave oven. The House Secrets exhibition at Scienceworks has a display of things not to microwave because it destroys your appliance. We sacrificed a number of microwaves making this film so you don’t have to ruin yours. So don’t try this at home.

Microwave display at House Secrets The video of microwave mistakes is inside a microwave in the House Secrets exhibition. Marshmallow will puff up and then flump, thin metal creates mini lighting (electricity arcs form between the metal and the microwave) and an unpierced egg will explode due to build up of steam.
Image: Andi Horvath
Source: Museum Victoria


5. Making a tasty gourmet meal in a microwave oven is still a challenge. The pictures in 1970s cookbooks always seem rather unappetising – perhaps the food stylist’s profession was in its infancy. When I asked around the office, most people told me they just use their microwaves to heat things. Perhaps if MasterChef runs a microwave cooking challenge it may inspire people to give it a go.

1970s microwave cookbook Are those chicken skewers with lemon pieces? It doesn’t seem to me to be a microwave thing but maybe that’s why they chose it for the cover: to surprise you. This 1970s microwave cookbook is on display in the House Secrets exhibition.
Image: Andi Horvath
Source: Museum Victoria

Comments (6)

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Nick 3 June, 2011 10:18
Nice one Andi! I remember as a child melting a chocolate egg in the microwave at Easter. The only thing was that I left the foil on it and created my own mini Lightning Room! The smell of burnt chocolate (and presumably microwave casing)was terrible.
Jenny 3 June, 2011 10:33
I've still got my very first microwave, a wedding gift, 1988. Has never broken down and still going strong....they don't make them like they used to do!
JessB 3 June, 2011 17:06
Great post! I have to admit, when I read "5. Making a tasty gourmet meal in a microwave oven is still a challenge", I did think, 'ooooh, that should be an invention test on Masterchef! That would be a great night I think.
Liza 6 June, 2011 09:39
And microwaves can offer other benefits beyond cooking food - they are also used as outback letter boxes.
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Alex Chubaty 6 June, 2011 14:52
Microwave ovens are not just for re-heating! I cook alot of vegetables this way. For single servings of carrots and brocolli I put them in a covered bowl with a smidgen of water and cook them on high for 2-3 minutes. Sliced zucchini takes even less time. If I'm cooking a stir fry with green beans or asparagus and I don't want them too crunchy, I cook them in the microwave first for 1 minute then throw them in the wok with the rest of the ingredients. Perhaps I should publish a book on microwave hints...
M 3 May, 2013 21:23
Went today's with class so FUN!!!

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.