Meet me at the museum video


Hi, I'm Dr Andi. Glad you could meet me at the museum. Today we're at Scienceworks in the House Secrets exhibition. We're going to look into the secret past life of one of your favourite kitchen appliances.

I've got a quiz for you. What am I? I'm a piece of everyday technology. I was an accidental discovery. I was a spin-off from military research. And I'm found in every office kitchen.

Yes, it's the microwave. And this is a short film about its secret past life.

Come with me and let's go back in time. It's 1945 and Percy Spencer is doing research at an American military laboratory. We've arrived just at the moment before he puts his hand in his pocket and discovers something. Watch what happens.

The choc treat had totally melted. Percy realised that the choc lolly must've melted due to his microwaves. So Percy and his colleagues thought, 'Hey we can use that'. And they did.

Rumour has it that Percy's lab then tried an egg and it exploded in their faces just as they were about to look at it, but that didn't put them off. They then tried to microwave some corn kernels and of course they got popcorn. Then they knew they were definitely onto something good.

The early prototypes of microwaves looked like giant metal cabinets, but by 1959 they looked more like this. Here at the House Secrets exhibition is a display cabinet of appliances. And in here is a very early microwave dated 1959. It was made by Husqvarna, a Swedish company, and it's called the Electronic Cupol 2001. I guess they thought 2001 sounded a bit space agey in 1959.

In the 1960s, microwaves were mainly used in the food industry, in large restaurants and in the military. Even on submarines.

It wasn't until the mid 1970s that the microwave commercial domestic market finally took off. One of the reasons was that the components to make the microwave were a lot cheaper. Another reason was the myths about the microwave radiation were finally dispelled. After that, they were selling like hotcakes.

If you could dissect a microwave - and don't bother, because we've done one for you here - you would find that most of it is insulated casing. But the heart of every microwave is the magnetron. Sounds like it might be a good name for a superhero or perhaps a grunge band. 

But the magnetron in microwaves is in fact what generates the microwaves. And how it works is the microwaves jiggle the food molecules or water molecules so fast that they heat up. In the spectrum of waves, like radio frequencies and light waves, TV remote devices sit here, mobile phones sit here, and in between them is the microwave. Remember, Percy was doing research on radars, which work on waves too.

I asked around the office to see who uses a microwave for cooking. Nobody. Everyone just uses it for heating food. I reckon one of those major cooking shows should get their contestants to cook with the microwave, not just heat. Anyway, thanks to Percy Spencer we have quick, hot food and hot chocolates.

So that's the secret past life of the microwave. But before we go I want to show you an old 1970s cookbook. Yes, this was 'Microwave Know-how'. Looks a bit unappetising but perhaps the food stylist profession was still in its infancy.

About this Video

An online video series about items from Museum Victoria's collection.
Length: 4:30