The Origins Of Commercial Microwaves

The advent of the microwave oven has revolutionised cooking; jacket potatoes can be cooked in 5 minutes rather than an hour and whole meals can be reheated at the push of a button. It is the perfect fast food technology for our fast paced lifestyle. But how did this amazing convention come about? It wasn't the desire to nuke our food that spurred on the science world when investigating microwave technology; it was the need for communication. In fact, microwaves are still used today in radio communication and wireless applications such as Bluetooth technology.

The discovery of microwaves, which are part of the electromagnetic wave spectrum, was in 1868 by a scientist working on the equations that predicted their existence by a colleague. It was the Ultra High Frequency that was detected by fairly basic equipment. It wasn't until the early 1940s that a happy accident happened that saw one scientist stumble upon the potential for microwave technology to cook food. Whilst conducting a test on a radar set that used microwaves, a scientist realised that the radar had caused a chocolate bar in his pocket to melt.

This spurred investigation into the use of this technology to cook food. Initially the experiment involved successfully popping popcorn and boiling eggs - one of which exploded in the face of a fellow technician. These events lead to the creation of an enclosed area that could contain the radiation; because the technology had the potential to cook anything in the air around it, the health and safety implications are enormous.

Food is heated by dielectric heating, aggravating the water molecules present in food and causing them to heat up. This is usually a uniform approach, cooking the food evenly throughout, unlike other methods that cook the food from the outside and then inwards. This method has the benefit of being much quicker than conventional cooking methods, but does not have the capability to brown food. The machines niche lies in the reheating of already prepared foods, first gaining popularity in the catering industry.

The first commercial microwave oven came into existence during the 1950s, and was a whopping 6 feet tall and consumed almost triple the energy than a machine today does. It was also incredibly expensive, but the potential was evident and as with all technology the oven became smaller, more efficient and less expensive. By the early 1970s, 1 per cent of the population had microwaves in their home. That figure rose to twenty five per cent in the mid eighties and currently sits at around ninety per cent of households in the United States owning one.

Both commercial and domestic versions of the microwave oven work in the same way, but the popularity in the up market catering industry is limited due to the way the food is cooked. Although there have been many recipes written specifically for this type of cooking, results for recipes that call for certain methods that enhance flavour, for example browning, are just not attainable. This has resulted in microwaved food being regarded as inferior, and associated mainly with fast food at home, for example TV dinners, and the fast food industry such as major burger chains.

Despite this derogatory press, the microwave oven is a popular addition to the twenty first century home, and looks set to stay. The microwave's popularity for preparing food quickly, especially jacket potatoes and beans; its rapid defrosting capabilities, and its top use... for popping corn are the reasons this once sci-fi cooking appliance is a permanent fixture in today's fitted kitchen.

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About The Author, Dominic Donaldson
Dominic Donaldson is an expert in the catering industry.Find out more about commercial microwaves at