Percy Spencer & the First Microwave

Before Percy Spencer was the inventor of the microwave, he was an orphan, a farmer, and a grammar school dropout. He was born in Howland, Maine in 1894 to a mother who abandoned him and a father who died when he was only eighteen months old. This left him an orphan until his aunt and uncle adopted him. [1]

While growing up he was a farmer boy. When he was twelve, he worked at a spool mill and at the age of sixteen he joined a team of three men to install electricity into the local paper mill. However, it was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 that took his electricity curiosity to the next level. He joined the Navy to learn wireless telegraphy and they sent him to radio school. Since he had not completed his lower education schooling he had to do a lot of self-educating, Spencer said, “I just got hold of a lot of textbooks and taught myself while I was standing watch at night.” [2]

Simpson, Barry. “Microwave Oven, 1965.” Digital image. Te Ara. September 5, 2013. Accessed March 16, 2017.

He developed a skill for electrical work that lead him through a plethora of jobs in the field. [3] His time working at Raytheon Corporation was the career path that changed technology forever. One day while on the job he was testing a magnetron and noticed that the chocolate bar he had in his back pocket had completely melted. [4] He began to test a lot of foods, and discovered that he could cook food using this technology a lot faster than a convention oven. He patented the invention in 1945. [5]

From then on Raytheon put all its efforts into, not only developing, but also mass-producing a microwave oven. The first prototype cost the company $100,000 to construct. The first commercial was sold to Cleveland Restaurant 1947 for $3000. [6] It was “ a free standing, white enameled unit operating on 220 volts of electricity that required an internal water-cooling system.” [7] The high price narrowed the company’s target market to predominately hotels, restaurants, railroads, and cruise ships. [8] In 1952, the company developed a model for an in-home microwave. It was five and a half feet tall and weighed 750 pounds. [9] This made it unreasonable for domestic use. The company licensed Hotpoint, Westinghouse, Kelvinator, Whirlpool, and Tappan in an attempt to develop a more practical model. [10] The first microwave put out for a mass public debut in October 1955. It fit with a 40-inch range. It was stainless steel on the outside and aluminum on the inside with a glass shelf. It had dual cooking speeds and an oven timer. [11] What started sort of by accident, lead to a fulfilled dream of mass production.

Strauss, Richard. “Tappan Model RL-1.” Digital image. Lemelson Center. November 16, 2016. Accessed March 16, 2017.
Spencer Family Archives. “Percy LeBaron Spencer.” Digital image. Lemelson Center. November 16, 2016. Accessed March 16, 2017.

Spencer went on to receive several awards for his invention, including an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Massachusetts, and was inducted as a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Radio Engineers. [12] He passed away in 1970. [13]











[1] Murray, Don. “Percy Spencer and His Itch to Know.” Reader’s Digest, 1958, 114.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

 [4] Ross, Rachel. “Who Invented the Microwave Oven?” Live Science. Last Modified January 5, 2017. Accessed February 19, 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Smith, Andrew F. Eating History – 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine. NewYork: Columbia University Press, 2009, 205.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 206.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 205.

[12] Murray “Percy Spencer and His Itch to Know.”  114.

[13] Ross. “Who Invented the Microwave Oven?” Live Science.