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History of the Microwave Oven

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Published: Mon, 18 Dec 2017

Have you ever imagined your life without a microwave oven? To begin with, the word microwave is originated from the Greek word ‘micros’, which means small and refers to high frequency radio waves, the shortest waves of the electromagnetic spectrum (ideafinder, 2009). Furthermore, it can be said that microwaves work by heating up water molecules in the food and this saves time from cooking since it is a relatively fast method of cooking compared to others (history, 2009).

It all began in 1946, during World War II while a research related to radars was carried out. Dr. Percy Spencer, commonly known as an electronics genius (ideafinder, 2009), was working at that time in one of his experiment laboratories at Raytheon Company. He then realised that something strange had happened. While experimenting on a magnetron, vacuum tube, a chocolate bar situated in his pocked melted and intrigued him. Dr. Spencer did not hesitate and carried out a second experiment to identify the cause of that outcome by placing some popcorn kennels next to the magnetron and as a result the popcorn eventually popped and was thrown all over his lab. Fascinated by this outcome, the next morning Dr. Spencer carried out a further experiment using an egg which exploded from the microwaves’ radiation and as a result burned his workmate’s face. At that point the brilliant idea of why not using microwaves to cook food faster came to Dr. Spencer’s mind.

Having made his observations Dr. Spencer designed a metal box, where by using microwaves that could not escape the box, food could be cooked in it quickly. As a result, Spencer and Raytheon during the last months of 1946 manufactured the microwave oven, which was mainly used in restaurants, ocean liners and in the coaches of the trains. By 1947 the invention launched in the market after the name ‘Radarange’ and it must be noticed that microwave ovens are considered as by-products of another technology, since their invention resulted from the research of another technology, the radars.

However, ‘Radarange’ was huge, weighted 750 pounds, cost around $5000 and had to be cooled down using water after each use which required further costs and acted as a disincentive to consumers. After having made several modifications to the product, the first commercial microwave ‘1161 Radarange’ launched in the market in 1954 and cost $1295 and its power was 1600 Watts making it enormous and expensive again. This product’s consumers were restaurants and specific institutions. Later on in 1967 a turning point in the microwave ovens history was made after Amana, a division of Raytheon designed the domestic microwave oven appliance. It cost about $500 and was smaller in size. As years passed by the demand for microwaves increased and in 1975 sales of microwave ovens overcame the sales of gas ranges. As reported 17% of Japanese homes used microwaves as well as 4% of US households. However in 1976, microwave ovens usage rose to 60% in United States (gallawa, 2009). The innovation process of microwave ovens resulted from consumers’ preferences (lecture notes2, 2009). The demand of microwave ovens kept rising and its price kept falling generating competition since even more companies were entering the market. However, Nelson and Winter (1982) support, that technical modification is a guidance to human advancement but can bring about negative externalities as well, influencing the stakeholders. Some believed that microwave ovens would have adverse effects on people’s health but consumers realised that microwave ovens could help them in their everyday life cooking without doing any harm to them since there were no signs of radioactivity (gallawa, 2009). It can be said that it is a result of lateral thinking due to the fact that it eliminates criticisms and disbeliefs of stakeholders (Lecture Notes 2, 2009). As a result of combining several ideas microwave ovens took several forms in order to reflect consumers’ taste and needs. This means that the manufacturers act as business men and target several markets trying to differentiate their products in order to be unique and gain large amounts of profits.

An entrepreneur is ‘the owner or manager of a business enterprise who, by risk and initiative, attempts to make profits’ (Richard Cantillon, 1755, Lecture Notes 1). In this case Dr. Spencer in collaboration with Raytheon, are considered as entrepreneurs since they made the first microwave oven and launched it in the market with the purpose of making profits. According to Joseph Schumpeter ‘Whatever the type, someone is an entrepreneur only when he actually carries out new combinations, and losses that character as soon as he has built up his business'(1934, Lecture Notes 2). This exemplifies that Dr. Spencer was an entrepreneur while experimenting on the metal box in order to manufacture a microwave oven but lost this character when his product got in the market.

Additionally, the innovation of this product according to Schumpeter’s crucial distinction is a discrete change, since this innovation transformed unexpectedly in the market and no existing technology related to it. Some can argue that previous oven versions can be compared to it but the technology used while manufacturing the microwave oven is way much different since it involves microwave waves, which automatically detach it from being similar to any typical oven. Moreover, no signs of previous research concerning the product existed in the market and microwave oven reflected the customers’ choice. ‘Radarage’ had nothing similar to it in the market, and therefore predictions about the product’s success couldn’t be made. Dr. Spencer and Raytheon were taking a risk, which was later proven to be a total failure. Improvements to the microwave oven and modifications that occurred later on resulted to gradual changes in innovation. Being closely related to previous editions of the product it then reflected customer’s choice and remained in the market (Lecture Notes 2, 2009).

Freeman (1984) explains stakeholders as ‘any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the firm’s objectives’ and stakeholders can either be primary, those who have an immediate effect on the company or secondary, those who do not affect the company but can control it through primary ones. A stakeholder analysis would help while promoting the appliance and responding to the risks arising from this product being in the market. Will everybody be affected? All affected parties should be identified and considered and it must be stated how the product will affect their daily routine as well as if any legal issues might arise regarding the patent of the invention. Then, uncertainty would be reduced if all factors are considered fairly, since risks would be obvious and profits could be determined. Eventually, launch strategies would be designed like improving the current appliance and promoting it in the market by using the most suitable method (Lecture Notes 2, 2009).

Nevertheless, the microwave oven plays a gigantic role on society’s welfare. From the point in time when Dr. Spencer was experimenting on the magnetron and found out about the melt chocolate bar in his pocket until the conclusion was made stating that microwaves can be used to cook food, innovation started and it was defined. Then as a generating solution, Dr. Spencer through brainstorming and lateral thinking started the design of the new appliance. Afterwards, by combining several ideas he reached the ideal theory for the production of the microwave oven. Additionally, Raytheon Company helped Dr. Spencer with his idea and created the fist microwave oven to be launched in the market and this is described as selecting the optimal solution. Finally, after the construction of the microwave oven, one of the most crucial parts of the innovation process was done, that was to persuade the consumers that by investing in the product, they would get a benefit, and also persuade the company that microwave oven would generate profits. Abernathy and Clark (1985) and Martin (1994) highlighted the significance of the new market knowledge. The inventors of the microwave oven should have done enough research about producing exactly what the stakeholders would want and target those specific markets in order to succeed with their product, as it was later done when Amana designed the domestic microwave oven that was practical enough, small and affordable by households. Also, different markets have been approached since microwave oven is used for drying leather, paper and cork. Clarkson (1995) argues that stakeholders are of several ‘interests, claims or rights’, proving again that research should be done.

If it wasn’t for the radical microwave oven, cooking nowadays would have taken more time. It improved people’s lives and it can be found in almost all households and where other kitchen appliances are situated since it is easy and safe to use. It is expected that gradual change will still be observed and that more advanced versions will be launched in the market in the near future just to meet people’s needs.


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