Rosanna Denyer, from our Learning Support Team, writes about an often overlooked object from the museum collection.
The food we eat has changed over time, and with the development of new technologies so has the way we cook and prepare our meals. Microwave ovens, like this Amana Radarange Touchmatic from 1978, have contributed to changes in both our diet and lifestyle.
The microwave oven was invented in 1945 by an engineer called Percy Spencer. He was researching military uses for radar technology and an accidental side effect of this was the invention of the microwave oven. After standing in front of a magnetron, Spencer noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. To test this further he then held a bag of corn kernels near the magnetron and watched as they exploded into popcorn.
Spencer found that microwaves, such as those emitted from his radar equipment, caused the water molecules in food to vibrate and heat up, which caused the food to cook. Recognising the potential of this, Spencer used the magnetron to create the first microwave ovens, which arrived in Britain in 1959.
After many years of using traditional ovens, the microwave oven was a startling change. Previously cooking had been a slow process, but now whole meals could be prepared in just a few minutes.
Some argue that the invention of the microwave brought about ‘the rise of the ready meal’. The first ‘TV Dinner’ was produced in 1954 and 10 million were sold in the first year alone. Since then, the popularity of ‘convenience food’ has grown and grown and the chilled ready meal market in the UK is now worth over £2.6 billion each year. Busy lifestyles, long working hours and an increased number of women in work are all seen as factors contributing to the popularity of microwaveable food.
But what does this mean for our health? Studies in 2012 suggested that less than 1% of supermarket ready meals complied with the World Health Organisation’s nutritional guidelines and some studies have shown that microwaving food can significantly reduce the nutrients contained within.
Despite this, the popularity of the microwave oven does not seem to be decreasing, and until a faster and more convenient way of cooking is invented, the microwave is likely to remain an essential piece of equipment in many kitchens.
What labour-saving device would you invent?
The Amana Radarange Touchmatic microwave oven can be found in The Secret Life of the Home gallery in the Basement of the museum.