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Today we celebrate a device that, despite being a really innovative invention, has in the eyes of many become synonymous with anti-innovation in the kitchen.

On this day, way back in 1894, Dr Percy Spencer (9 Jul 1894 – 7 Sep 1970) was born – the self-taught engineer who, many years later, invented the microwave oven. Before the Second World War, Sir John Randall and Dr HA Boot invented the magnetron tube, with which they were able to produce radar microwaves. A few years later, after the war, Percy Spencer was doing research work on the magnetron tube. While working on an active radar set he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted – the radar melted the chocolate bar with microwaves. From this discovery, he started investigating the possibility of using microwaves to cook food. Spencer fed microwave power from a magnetron into a sealed metal box. When he placed food into the container and radiated it with microwave energy, the temperature of the food rose rapidly. This resulted in the development of the microwave oven – a device that cooks food with radiation used to heat polarised molecules in the food.

The microwave oven – only good for popping corn?
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The first microwave ovens were large, heavy units, used in restaurants and commercial kitchens. The first countertop microwave was introduced in the mid sixties, soon becoming a ubiquitous device in kitchens around the world.

While the microwave oven is great for reheating food, cooking vegetables, and heating liquids like water or milk, it has not yet achieved any real culinary status. For the most part, it is used to heat ready-made, pre-packaged microwave meals. Microwave cooking can be quite healthy – it’s impact on nutrient content in food is said to be no worse than conventional heating, and thanks to the shorter preparation time, more micronutrients may be retained when microwaving vegetables, for example. But it is limited in application, and for the most part not capable of achieving the culinary effects and flavours created with conventional baking, frying, browning and slow-cooking. (Somehow I don’t expect to see Jamie Oliver’s “The Italian Microwave” or Nigella Lawson’s “The Microwave Goddess” hitting the cookery shelves anytime soon!)

So while the microwave oven definitely has it’s place in the modern kitchen, it may also probably stand trial as the primary culprit in thousands of dull, colourless and uninteresting meals prepared in the past 40 years.

Where do you stand – is the microwave oven an invention to celebrate, or to lament? Do you find it a must-have time-saver in the kitchen, or do you still have difficulty stomaching most microwave meals?

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