The home microwave oven turned 50 in 2017. Here are some tidbits you may not know about this cooking contraption—now found in more than 90 percent of American homes—gleaned from an article written by an associate professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University and other sources:
- Though refrigerator-size microwave ovens had been built for commercial food use beginning in 1947, the first popular countertop home model became available in 1967—costing $495 (about $3,600 today) and weighing 90 pounds.
- The origin of the microwave oven dates back to World War II when scientists were increasing production of magnetrons, devices that produce radio waves, upon which radar is based (radar was used to spot enemy aircraft). The story goes that when a scientist was working with a magnetron, a candy bar in his pocket melted, sparking an idea. Further testing found that radio waves could pop corn and cook eggs.
- The first microwave oven, sold by Amana, was called a Radarange, a combination of the words radar and range (referring to a stove). It was advertised as being able to cook hors d’oeuvres in seconds, a 5-pound roast in 37 minutes, and a baked potato in 4 minutes. Plus, it “cooks faster and cleaner than gas or electricity ever could…what’s more, it’s portable.”
- Over time, the name “microwave oven” came into general use because the radio waves used for cooking were small (“micro”) compared to other types of radio waves.
- Microwaves are a form of electromagnetic energy that causes water molecules in food to vibrate and rapidly produce heat. That’s how the food cooks. The plate or container is generally not affected, but can get hot when heat transfers from the cooked food.
- Contrary to popular belief, microwave ovens do not destroy more nutrients than other cooking methods. In fact, in many cases, they preserve nutrients better, because cooking times are relatively short and you use little if any water (nutrients leach into water, as when vegetables are boiled).
- The ovens don’t create dangerous compounds—microwaved foods are as safe as conventionally cooked foods. Just be sure to use microwave-safe plates and containers that won’t melt or leach any risky chemicals. Nor do they leak radiation that causes cancer, as scaremongers say.
- The ovens must meet federal safety standards, and only a tiny amount of leakage is allowed, far below the level known to cause harm. As long as the door hinges, latch, and seals are not damaged, the oven is safe to use.
Also see 11 Facts About Microwave Safety.