What would you say if I told you that the invention of the microwave owes itself to scientists trying to bring dead, frozen hamsters back to life? “You’re having a laugh,” I hear you cry. Surely this is some elaborate hoax or urban legend. But hold your cries for a little while friends, and let me tell you about the history of the microwave.
The microwave was first ‘invented’ thanks to the efforts of American scientist Percy Spencer, who worked for Raytheon, employed by the U.S. Department of Defense during World War II. Just before any, ‘Well, actually’ people decide to jump in, we are talking about the microwave oven, and not electromagnetic radiation. We get it, you studied Physics in school! So the story goes, while mucking about with radar, Spencer accidentally melted a chocolate bar in his back pocket. While he wasn’t the first to use electromagnetic radiation to cook food, Spencer was the first guy smart enough to realise he could earn a bit of dosh by selling the idea.
The design for these early microwaves is pretty much the same as how it is today: a magnetron (which generates microwave radiation) inside a safe radiation box called a Faraday cage. The technical term for this process is ‘diathermy’. Less than a year after the melting-chocolate incident, Spencer’s employees at Raytheon filed a patent for his microwave, and the first microwave oven was tested in a Boston restaurant. The key difference between this microwave and modern versions is that the Boston microwave was massive, and designed for commercial kitchens.
So, where do the hamsters come in?
Well, to understand the hamsters, we have to meet James E. Lovelock. In the 1950s, Lovelock was an independent scientist, meaning he was employed for being clever enough to work across scientific disciplines – or on whatever he found interesting. Although Lovelock has many credits to his name – including helping discover the ozone layer and designing technology now on Mars – in the 50s, he worked for the National Institute of Medical Research in North London. At the time, scientists were having fun by freezing hamsters and rats to the point of death, and then trying to revive them using hot spatulas. (Disclaimer: this was done by trained scientists, and it was the 1950s, when animal cruelty laws were a lot more relaxed – so please don’t try this at home.) Cryobiology – or the science of organisms/tissues at low temperatures – was the hot topic of the time. Early cryobiology was actually very useful in learning how to preserve tissues and blood for transplants and transfusions. One day, scientists hoped to freeze human beings, and use this technology to keep astronauts alive during space trips.
Now, Lovelock didn’t invent The Microwave. However, while he was busy reanimating hamsters – which did not have a great success rate – he thought, ‘Why don’t we try heating the animals all at once?’ You see, the spatulas – while sometimes effective at reviving the hamsters – would often leave the fuzzy critters with horrible burns. That’s not the kind of thing you’d want for any creature, let alone astronauts going into space. So the resourceful Lovelock built a tiny version of the magnetron + Faraday cage combo we’d seen in the large, commercial microwave ovens being tested only a few short years before – only this time, they were the size of our modern microwaves.
And guess what? It worked! Lovelock and his colleagues were able to revive almost all of the dead, frozen hamsters and rats using this early-microwave-oven and a little respiratory jumpstart to get the blood pumping around the body. Lovelock even claims that he tried baking a potato in it, and that it tasted all right! Unfortunately, there was a downside to this scientific breakthrough. These frozen hamster experiments could not be replicated with animals much bigger than a hamster – and you certainly couldn’t revive a frozen human. Turns out, it’s a matter of size: you can’t get the anti-freezing agent to diffuse into our cells quickly enough.
The story of Lovelock and the frozen hamsters is largely forgotten, even though he does appear to have independently invented a microwave oven – he just never bothered to patent or sell the design. But that doesn’t stop this scientist and his freezer full of rodents from being a part of design history. So the next time you’re heating up some soup in the microwave, try your best not to think about sticking a hamster ice lolly in there. It’ll ruin your appetite.