Related Inventions: Radar and
Raytheon and Percy Spencer 1894-1970
happens when a candy bar gets too hot? It melts, of course! That is precisely
what happened in 1946, when Percy Spencer discovered the idea behind microwave
cooking. Spencer, a self-taught engineer who held 150 patents, is one of the most
creative inventors in American history.
Spencer was involved in Raytheon's
World War II defense work; in fact he was responsible for several inventions that
helped the Allies in their decisive victory in Europe. He became involved with
magnetron production when the Pentagon sent a British Army leader to Boston to
meet with Spencer and Raytheon. Spencer, in one weekend, solved the problem of
mass-producing the then hand-built magnetron tubes, enabling many more radar sets
to be built; a decisive factor in winning the Battle of Britain.
working with magnetron tubes, Spencer stumbled upon an invention that changed
life in America. One afternoon in 1946, Spencer noticed that when he worked in
front of the magnetron, his favorite chocolate bar snack (stuck in his back pocket)
melted. Guessing that the heat from the magnetron caused the bar to melt, Spencer
tried a bag of popcorn. Sure enough, it popped!
Using Spencer's ideas,
Raytheon began to produce the Radarange, selling mainly to commercial businesses.
But the appliance was huge (the size of a refrigerator) and very expensive to
make ($100,000), and not very appealing to homeowners. After many design changes
and the development of cheaper, longer-lasting magnetron tubes, a small version,
now known as the microwave, began to make its way into homes in the mid-1960s
with Raytheon's Amana Division leading the way.
Spencer was the son of
an itinerant mill worker in Maine. Orphaned at 8, he never finished elementary
school. He came to Boston after World War I and was hired by Raytheon founders
Laurence Marshall, C. G. Smith, and Prof. Vannevar Bush (electrical engineering
at MIT). Marshall had been Bush's college roommate at Tufts University, and Smith
had done his graduate studies at Harvard. Raytheon is a prime example of how Boston's
strong educational tradition-in this case MIT, Harvard, and Tufts-has helped to
provide a fertile field for innovation and collaboration. Spencer, of course,
contributed his raw talent.
128 and the Birth of the Age of High Tech by Alan Earls, 2002 |
want to be . . . an Engineer by Stephanie Maze, 1999 |