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Making History While Snacking: Microwave Meets Marketplace

Making History While Snacking: Microwave Meets Marketplace MIND(s that filled) THE GAP(s) [XII]

World War II, going on between 1939 and 1945, was one of the bloodiest confrontations in the world. It cannot be overstated how much this conflict changed the course of history, for better (if anything good can be related to wars) or worse. For instance, many of our modern inventions directly originate in the war period. 

The correlation between the battlefield and your kitchen – the story of the microwave 

One of these ground breaking inventions was the radar technology, secretly developed for military use by several nations in the period before and during World War II. A key development was the cavity magnetron in the United Kingdom, which allowed the creation of relatively small systems with sub-meter resolution. The cavity magnetron is a high-powered vacuum tube that generates microwaves using the interaction of a stream of electrons with a magnetic field while moving past a series of open metal cavities, i.e., cavity resonators, according to Encyclopædia Britannica. This complicated mechanical device was the ancestor of what we use today to heat up our leftover pizza: the cavity magnetron made possible the production of electromagnetic waves of small length – microwaves.

But how did some piece of military technology become one of the most common household appliances worldwide? We could assume, as was the case of mobile phones, that the trickle-down effect was responsible and this piece of military technology naturally became widespread. However, this is not the story of the microwave.

For this tasty miracle, we have to thank Percy Spencer, a Raytheon engineer who, on a fortunate day about 70 years ago, while testing a military grade cavity magnetron, noticed that the chocolate in his pocket had melted. The microwaves from the radar that he was working on were cooking the desert right in front of him!

After a small experiment, Spencer figured out that the microwaves emitted by the magnetron could be concentrated to heat food. As such, he made the first working microwave used in households. As another proof that people have not really changed that much over the years, it turns out that the first dish that Percy Spencer prepared in his microwave was popcorn! 

Numerical insights on the microwave 

From a more technical perspective, the microwaves are radio waves with a frequency of approximately 2500 megahertz (Saravanamuthu, 2010). Microwaves are absorbed by water, fats and sugars and are immediately converted into heat. The microwaves penetrate food quickly, so that they cook food evenly.

The first commercial microwave oven was launched on the market as a patented product of Raytheon, but more about this aspect in the following section. The product weighed about 750 pounds and cost more than $2,000. Needless to say, it wasn't a bestseller. The first domestic microwave was introduced in 1955 (IEEE Spectrum, 2016), but it too failed to spread because it was still expensive and the microwave technology was still quite unknown. By 1975, however, one million microwaves were sold every year.

Moreover, the refrigerator-sized appliance was shrunk down to a more manageable, household-friendly size and, according to the University of Southern California, sales of the microwave oven “surpassed those of gas ranges” by 1975 (Tweedie, 2015). To mark the success of this life-changing device, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that over 90% of U.S. households owned the appliance by 1997 (Regier et. al, 2017). 

From scientific trial and error to future-oriented marketability 

Fictional hard-working scientists spending most of their lives in the laboratories have entertained children and adults for a long time, notably by means of TV shows and cartoons illustrating the humorous dimension of their day-to-day research endeavours. Nonetheless, the long-standing juxtaposition of commitment and creativity often seems to result in more than scientific discovery – it also translates into marketable products, born out of pragmatic insight into the applications of a discovery.

In the aftermath of World War II, Tappan and Sharp Corporation acknowledged the profit-making prospects of applying the innovations in electromagnetism to the marketplace, in view of a large consumer pool potentially awaiting the microwave oven’s launch, which promised to ease their lives by reducing home labour. Building on Spencer’s already patented device, Tappan, which licensed it, aimed to have the first microwave ovens in households by 1955 (IEEE Spectrum, 2016). It was not long until demand started to plummet, due to the product’s expense and size.

Capitalizing on the opportunity, Sharp entered the business during 1964-1966, equipped with an adjusted microwave oven with the first turntable attached. The market become more welcoming, with this innovation. Being aware of the potential customers’ expectations contributed to the Japanese company’s competitive advantage. Sharp has always prioritized research and development in view of profiting from the technological advances, whilst concomitantly diversifying its portfolio to better accommodate the commercial opportunities of the post-war world, at the dawn of the so-called third industrial revolution. Solar-powered calculators and first-generation LCD monitors were included in Sharp’s variety of cutting-edge commercial products. It is still in the business today, being ranked as the third microwave oven producer in the United Kingdom by the number of users in 2018 (Statista, 2019), but facing strong competition from Panasonic, Sony and Samsung.

Similarly to the ubiquity of its products, Sharp Corporation does not follow straightforward rules concerning its supply chain management, according to Forbes (2017). With factories in the United States and Thailand, semi-finished outputs are personalized into 61 unique finished products, whose manufacturing relies on both local and imported components. A product line significantly influencing their US sales, the microwave ovens reach the consumers through different dealers and retailers. Furthermore, the cornerstone of Sharp’s success is its ability to extract reliable forecasts from those consumers planning to renovate or redesign their homes, ensuring flexible and timely production and distribution.

In 1962, the skyrocketing demand triggered Sharp’s mass production of the new home appliance. A rising share of the global population desired to accessorize the kitchens with the practical and trending invention. The consumer market segment was supplemented by restaurants manifesting upgrading their processes for higher productivity and efficiency gains. In fact, the microwave oven revolutionized the marketplace in more profound ways. The product’s functionalities successfully served other economic sectors as well, where quick, but efficient heating was necessary – the “cork, ceramics, paper, leather, tobacco, textiles, pencils, flowers” industries (Live Science, 2017).

All due to an accidental discovery with chocolate! 

The microwave oven in the 21st century and its forthcoming development 

The future may look bright for companies such as Sharp, as long as they note the health and climate considerations reiterated by both the international organizations and public opinion.

On the one hand, albeit fears for the microwaves’ potentially harmful effects have existed ever since the product’s inception, research into these issues has grown in recent years (indeed, a hot topic the consumers have been reading about in their morning news). However, the rumours have yet to be empirically demonstrated, with the World Health Organization (2005), Harvard Medical School (2015) and the US Food and Drug Administration (2017) praising the microwave oven’s advantages, if utilized correctly. Despite inconclusive findings on the microwave’s negative implications for health, consumers are not reticent – they have made it part and parcel of their daily lives on account of its convenience.

There are other concerns. A 2017 Greenpeace International report ranks the renowned consumer electronics companies by their contribution to the fight against climate change, with Fairphone and Apple being the most environmentally aware, neither of which produce microwaves. It is uncertain, however, the extent to which environmental awareness ranks in consumer choice, especially over convenience and price, beyond the premium sector. According to Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton: “There is only one boss. The customer – and he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else”. 

References: 

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Magnetron, Available at: https://www.britannica.com/technology/magnetron. [Accessed April 29th 2020].

Forbes (2017) Consumer Electronics and Home Appliance Firm Implements a "Sharp" Planning Process!. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevebanker/2017/03/30/consumer-electronics-and-home-appliance-firm-implements-a-sharp-planning-process/#4537581a6f1b. [Accessed April 29th 2020].

Greenpeace International (2017) Guide to Greener Electronics 2017. Available at: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/reports/greener-electronics-2017/. [Accessed April 29th 2020].

Harvard Medical School (2015) Microwave Cooking and Nutrition. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/microwave-cooking-and-nutrition. [Accessed April 29th 2020].

IEEE Spectrum (2016) A Brief History of the Microwave Oven. Available at: https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/space-age/a-brief-history-of-the-microwave-oven. [Accessed April 28th 2020].

Live Science (2017) Who Invented the Microwave Oven? Available at: https://www.livescience.com/57405-who-invented-microwave-oven.html. [Accessed April 28th 2020].

Regier, M., Knoerzer, K. and Schubert, H. (2017) The Microwave Processing of Foods. Woodhead Publishing;

Saravanamuthu, R. (2010) Industrial Exploitation of Microorganisms. New Delhi: I.K. International Publishing House Pvt. Ltd.

Sharp. Sharp History & Facts. Available at: https://www.sharpusa.com/AboutSharp/CompanyProfile/SharpAndTechnologyHistory.aspx. [Accessed April 29th 2020].

Statista (2019) Brands of Microwave Ovens Ranked by Number of Users in Great Britain in 2018. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/437703/leading-brands-of-microwave-ovens-in-the-uk/. [Accessed April 29th 2020].

Tweedie, S. (2015), How the Microwave Was Invented by a Radar Engineer Who Accidentally Cooked. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/how-the-microwave-oven-was-invented-by-accident-2015-4. [Accessed April 29th 2020].

US Food and Drug Administration (2017) Microwave Oven Radiation. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/radiation-emitting-products/resources-you-radiation-emitting-products/microwave-oven-radiation. [Accessed April 29th 2020].

World Health Organization (2005) Electromagnetic Fields & Public Health: Microwave Ovens. Available at: https://www.who.int/peh-emf/publications/facts/info_microwaves/en/. [Accessed April 29th 2020].

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016