Geek Of The Week: Percy Spencer

Geek Of The Week: Percy Spencer

Percy Spencer was an American physicist and inventor. Spencer became one of the world’s leading experts in radar tube design. Spencer worked at Raytheon, a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, as the chief of the power tube division. At that time, magnetrons were used to generate the microwave radio signals that are the core mechanism of radar, and they were being made at the rate of 17 per day at Raytheon. While working there, Spencer developed a more efficient way to manufacture them, by punching out and soldering together magnetron parts, rather than using machined parts. His improvements were among those that increased magnetron production to 2,600 per day. For his work, he was awarded the Distinguished Public Service Award by the U.S. Navy.

One day while building magnetrons, Spencer was standing in front of an active radar set when he noticed the candy bar he had in his pocket had melted. Spencer was not the first to notice this phenomenon, but he was the first to investigate it. He decided to experiment using food, including popcorn kernels, which became the world’s first microwaved popcorn. In another experiment, an egg was placed in a tea kettle, and the magnetron was placed directly above it. The result was the egg exploding in the face of one of his co-workers, who was looking in the kettle to observe. Spencer then created the first true microwave oven by attaching a high density electromagnetic field generator to an enclosed metal box. The magnetron emitted microwaves into the metal box blocking any escape, allowing for controlled and safe experimentation. He then placed various food items in the box, while observing effects and monitoring temperatures.

Raytheon filed a patent on October 8, 1945 for a microwave cooking oven, eventually named the Radarange. In 1947, the first commercially produced microwave oven was about 6 feet tall, weighed about 750 lbs, and cost about 5,000 dollars each. In 1967 the first relatively affordable ($495) and reasonably sized (counter-top) microwave oven was available for sale. And now in 2016, they can be turned into a camera to spy on your enemies, who knew!

About the Author

avatar MIKE: A geek who currently works as a Biologist and has an extensive science background. He is an avid user of HPC systems used for scientific research in the Washington DC area. Mike's working knowledge of using computers to solve problems brings a unique viewpoint to the podcast.