The magic tube melted a candy in his pocket

Percy LeBaron Spencer (Howland, Maine, July 9, 1894 – September 8, 1970)

September 1940. London is bombed by German planes for weeks in broad daylight. The British have rapidly installed radar installations - a state-of-the-art invention of their own - on board hundreds of RAF aircraft and built the first chain of radar stations on the east coast, from Aberdeen to Southampton. It soon becomes clear that the long radio waves cannot trace low flying aircraft. Microwave radars are being developed head over heels. The heart of it is a complicated vacuum tube, a microwave. The British need more than they can produce themselves and are knocking on the door of the American allies, who are not yet involved in the war at that time.

On the evening of Thursday, September 19, 1940, the American and British defense specialists meet at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. The British expect Bell Labs or Western Electric to be the most suitable for production.

The Americans propose to include smaller firms among the candidates, because small firms are often more flexible and can react more quickly. And time is running out, the bombing of London continues.

On Friday afternoon, the British delegation leader John Cockcroft, a prominent physicist, arrives at the office of Laurence Marshall, president of Raytheon, a Lexington, Massachusetts company with 1,400 employees and a turnover of barely three million dollars.

Marshall introduces his best brain, Percy LeBaron Spencer, a wizard, an inventor wizard, with no engineering training.

Cockcroft, who will later receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, has brought the new radar transmitter tube in a cardboard box and Spencer questions Cockcroft.

Spencer would later write of his first encounter with the new device: "The technique used by the British to make the tubes immediately seemed clumsy and impractical to us." 'One must dare,' said one commentator, 'to describe the most brilliant product that British science has produced in those years as clumsy and impractical.'

It was getting late that Friday night and Spencer suddenly said, "What I wanted to ask is, could I take this thing home over the weekend?" Afterwards, Cockcroft couldn't understand why he had allowed it.

The microwave – a tube in which high-voltage electricity is converted into microwaves – is top secret, Britain's most valuable secret. Spencer could have been killed on the way home, had a heart attack, or whatever.

Cockcroft could never have explained to London why he had handed over the microwave. But it seemed obvious at the time.

When Spencer shows up on Monday with the microwave under his arm, he's also brought an idea. He wants to replace the copper rod, which is more than ten centimeters thick, with crushed copper of thirty millimeters and to stamp the configuration instead of drilling it out.

The British wonder how he wants to attach certain parts together. "With silver solder," says Spencer, "and then baked in a special oven."

Inquiries in the radar industry, Bell Labs or Western Electric, and universities tell the Pentagon that Spencer's ideas are not feasible. Washington therefore does not want to subsidize the Raytheon plan, let alone put the money for the special oven, price $ 750,000, on the table.

However, Raytheon boss Marshall has confidence in Percy Spencer and is making the switch with his own capital.

Experts had also calculated that a production of 100 handmade microwave ovens per day was the absolute maximum.

Spencer works out a machine production and at the beginning of 1941 more than ten thousand 'maggies' a week run off the band at Raytheon. "They came out like sausages," says a later president. Spencer had unleashed his own Blitzkrieg.

Percy Spencer was born on July 19, 1894 in poverty in Howland, Maine. His father dies in a factory accident when he is eighteen months old and his mother places him under the protection of an aunt.

Aunt Minnie earns her living as a wandering weaver and little Percy has to lend a hand. At the age of twelve he shoots his first deer.

Fifty years later he would still remember how he gutted the animal, cut it into pieces and hung it in the barn. For the rest of his life he will be identified with hunting, shooting, trapping, fishing, the wild.

In 1925, through his younger brother, he ends up at Raytheon, but he has "no more education than the average seasonal worker looking for a job after the First World War."

He has some knowledge of electricity and underwater equipment, acquired in the Navy. From day one, he provides the breakthrough in a number of problems. One who opens his material box to fathom the secret of his knowledge finds only…

twelve bottles of whisky.

It is now the time of Prohibition. Spencer doesn't stand out, he doesn't have an aura of genius, so he never ceases to amaze his colleagues with his insights.

In a historical overview of the company, the author describes how experts took out their rulers at a meeting for a calculation and Spencer was able to give the result immediately, without a ruler.

Thanks to him, Raytheon wins the UK microwave order. During the course of the war, the company's sales rose from $3 million to $173 million and it produced eighty percent of all microwave ovens deployed by the Allies.
At the Raytheon factory in Waltham, Massachusetts, it quickly becomes apparent that the microwave ovens give off heat; in the winter of 1942 it is cool in the studios and people warm their hands on the strange pipes.

It is Percy Spencer who thinks that you can also cook with the transmitter tube, that microwaves have the right length to move water molecules in the food to such an extent that they generate heat.

According to some sources, Spencer got the idea because the tube melts a piece of candy or a piece of chocolate in his pocket. It is certain that as early as 1942 he knocked on the door of the management with the suggestion. He often talks about it, broods over it.

After the war, the production of the microwave tube comes to a halt, a new product is welcome. One day one of the engineers holds a bag of corn in front of the TV and the popcorn flies around. Then a piece of pork is tested. Someone even has the courage to eat it afterwards.

Spencer thinks it's time to give the board of directors a demonstration, a little show using a simple egg. And although the egg shatters and the directors are covered in egg dust, they appear willing to pump millions into the project.

Spencer applies for a patent on October 8, 1945. In 1947, the first device comes onto the market: the Radarange, still with water cooling, as big as a refrigerator, as expensive as a car, only usable in restaurants, hospital kitchens or catering companies.

And Spencer receives the Navy's highest civilian award for military service, the Distinguished Public Service Award.

In 1950, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, a university that had given no credence to its radar tube production system ten years earlier. Within Raytheon he is promoted, in the early sixties he even becomes vice president.

He then has one hundred and twenty patents to his name. Because he disappears from the workshops, he will no longer succeed in bringing the microwave oven into the kitchen of the ordinary citizen.

The microwave has been dormant for twenty years. Raytheon has invested more than five million dollars in fourteen years in the project, while barely ten thousand units are sold. In 1961, as part of a number of international acquisitions, the company acquires a one-third interest in NJRC (New Japan Radio Company) and here it is the Japanese engineer Keishi Ogura who, on behalf of Raytheon, does with the microwave oven what Spencer did with the radar microwave oven at the time: a develop a reduced, practical version. But the thing has not yet reached the market: the distance to the consumer is too great.

In 1965 Raytheon takes over Amana, a company with great experience in the field of refrigerators. And it's the chef of Amana, a legendary salesman, who goes out with the microwave.

The one with trains in which cooking demonstrations are held, travels city and country, bridges the gap to the consumer's kitchen. Which also assists the consumer after the sale. Percy LeBaron Spencer is still experiencing the first success. He dies on September 7, 1970.

Philips only introduced a small model in the Netherlands and Belgium in 1974. In 1987, no more than 2 percent of Dutch households still owned a microwave: changing cooking habits was not self-evident even in the Old World.

(See also: gps)