A peek into our collections, one object at a time

Microwave Oven

June 19, 2013
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Microwave Oven, 1976
Richard Strauss, Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Microwave Oven, 1976

Microwave ovens are a staple in American kitchens and a lifeline for college students, but that was not always the case. Percy Spencer developed and patented the first microwave oven after noticing that a magnetron was emitting heat-generating microwaves during an experiment with radar in 1945. The first models were huge—about 6 feet in height and weighing more than 750 pounds. After World War II, when wartime technologies were adapted for domestic purposes, the ovens became smaller and more suitable for homes.

In the 1970s, food companies expanded their offerings of frozen, microwavable dinners and snacks to meet the demands of busy families and individuals with complex schedules or no inclination to cook. Many Americans became increasingly dependent on prepared foods, fast-food restaurants and other on-the-go meal options.

This 1976 model was manufactured in Japan by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. for J.C. Penney and was sold to Jeff and Jan Thompson for $261.35, including tax and an Assurance Performance Plan. They donated it to the National Museum of American History in 2006. Unlike modern microwaves, this model features a door hinged at the top with a multisided observation window to watch the cooking process and a 15-minute timer for precise cooking.

For more information on this microwave oven, visit the National Museum of American History’s collection page.

To learn more about food and the American experience, visit FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.