During the Second World War, the RAF pioneered the use of radar to detect the presence of the incoming Luftwaffe raids. One of the key pieces of equipment used in the construction of the radars was called a magnetron, which uses a magnetic field to propel high-speed electrons and generate the kind of high-powered radio waves needed for such a technology to be successful over long distances. After the war was over, the British government felt it could share such technology with its American allies, and so granted permission for Raytheon, a private American enterprise, to produce them. Whilst experimenting with such a radar set in 1945, a Raytheon engineer called Percy Spencer reached to the chocolate bar in his pocket; and discovered it had melted. He later realised that the electromagnetic radiation generated by the radar set had been the cause of this heating effect, and thought that such technology could be put to a different, non-military use- and so the microwave oven was born.
Since then, the microwave has become the epitome of western capitalism’s golden age; the near-ubiquitous kitchen gadget, usually in the traditional white plastic casing, designed to make certain specific aspects of a process already technically performed by another appliance (the oven) that bit faster and more convenient. As such, it has garnered its fair share of hate over the years, shunned by serious foodies as a taste-ruining harbinger of doom to one’s gastric juices that wouldn’t be seen dead in any serious kitchen. The simplicity of the microwaving process (especially given that there is frequently no need for a pot or container) has also lead to the rise of microwavable meals, designed to take the concept of ultra-simple cooking to its extreme by creating an entire meal from a few minutes in the microwave. However, as everyone who’s every attempted a bit of home cooking will know, such process does not naturally occur quite so easily and thus these ready meals generally require large quantities of what is technically known as ‘crap’ for them to function as meals. This low quality food has become distinctly associated with the microwave itself, further enhancing its image as a tool for the lazy and the kind of societal dregs that the media like to portray in scare statistics.
In fairness, this is hardly the device’s fault, and it is a pretty awesome one. Microwave ovens work thanks to the polarity of water molecules; they consist of one positively charged end (where the hydrogen part of H2O is) and a negatively charged end (where the electron-rich oxygen bit is). Also charged are electromagnetic waves, such as the microwaves after which the oven takes its name, and such waves (being as they are, y’know, waves) also oscillate (aka ‘wobble) back and forth. This charge wobbling back and forth causes the water molecules (technically it works with other polarised molecules too, but there are very few other liquids consisting of polarised molecules that one encounters in cookery; this is why microwaves can heat up stuff without water in, but don’t do it very well) to oscillate too. This oscillation means that they gain kinetic energy from the microwave radiation; it just so happens that the frequency of the microwave radiation is chosen so that it closely matches the resonant frequency of the oscillation of the water molecules, meaning this energy transfer is very efficient*; a microwave works out as a bit over 60% efficient (most of the energy being lost in the aforementioned magnetron used to generate the microwaves), which is exceptional compared to a kettle’s level of around 10%. The efficiency of an oven really depends on the meal and how it’s being used, but for small meals or for reheating cold (although not frozen, since ice molecules aren’t free to vibrate as much as liquid water) food the microwave is definitely the better choice. It helps even more that microwaves are really bad at penetrating the metal & glass walls of a microwave, meaning they tend to bounce off until they hit the food and that very little of the energy gets lost to the surroundings once it’s been emitted. However, if nothing is placed in the microwave then these waves are not ‘used up’ in heating food and tend to end up back in the microwave emitter, causing it to burn out and doing the device some serious damage.
*I have heard it said that this is in fact a myth, and that microwaves are in fact selected to be slightly off the resonant frequency range so that they don’t end up heating the food too violently. I can’t really cite my sources on this one nor explain why it makes sense.
This use of microwave radiation to heat food incurs some rather interesting side-effects; up first is the oft-cited myth that microwaves cook food ‘from the inside out’. This isn’t actually true, for although the inside of a piece of food may be slightly more insulated than the outside the microwaves should transfer energy to all of the food at a roughly equal rate; if anything the outside will get more heating since it is hit first by the microwaves. This effect is observed thanks to the chemical makeup of a lot of the food put in a microwave, which generally have the majority of their water content beneath the surface; this makes the surface relatively cool and crusty, with little water to heat it up, and the inside scaldingly hot. The use of high-power microwaves also means that just about everyone in the country has in their home a death ray capable of quite literally boiling someone’s brain if the rays were directed towards them (hence why dismantling a microwave is semi-illegal as I understand it), but it also means that everyone has ample opportunity to, so long as they don’t intend to use the microwave again afterwards and have access to a fire extinguisher, do some seriously cool stuff with it. Note that this is both dangerous, rather stupid and liable to get you into some quite weird stuff, nothing is a more sure fire indicator of a scientific mind than an instinct to go ‘what happens when…’ and look at the powerful EM radiation emitter sitting in your kitchen. For the record, I did not say that this was a good idea…