The creation of the microwave oven is one of those remarkable stories where the inventor made their world-changing breakthrough by accident while working on something completely different. And it all happened in 1945 when research scientist Dr. Percy Spencer was developing new radar technology for the Raytheon Manufacturing Company.
As one of the company’s most trusted scientists, Dr. Spencer had been assigned to a top secret project to enhance a military radar system. And while testing a new piece of equipment designed to mass-produce radar magnetrons, he found that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Curious as to why this had happened, he placed an egg under his prototype magnetron – and seconds later the egg exploded. But rather than ending up with ‘egg on his face’, Dr. Spencer filed the patent for the world’s first microwave oven.
Like many household appliances, the dishwasher went through a long and often laborious process of development before morphing into the highly efficient devices that today make washing up effortless. Early designs were manually-powered wooden contraptions that didn’t wash crockery very well, and tended to break the dishes. But in 1887, an enterprising lady by the name of Josephine Cochrane invented a device that not only washed dishes really well with hot soapy water, but also protected them from damage.
It’s tempting to think that Ms Cochrane was motivated by a desire to escape from the kitchen and the daily drudgery of housework. But in fact, she was a rather well-heeled lady who was annoyed by the slowness and clumsiness of her servants. Yet thanks to her moment of inspiration (and her inept servants), 50% of UK households now have one of these labour-saving appliances.
Automatic washing machine
The evolution of the modern washing machine can be traced back to the 18th century when inventors began to turn their attention to improving, simplifying and automating the task of laundering clothes. Early models were basically hand-cranked barrels which sloshed the clothes around in cold soapy water. And when the design advanced from wooden barrels to steel, the contents could be heated over a fire. By the 19th century, steam powered washing machines were cutting-edge technology.
Yet the real breakthrough was achieved by John W. Chamberlain in the mid 1930’s. Mr. Chamberlain was a very smart chap who worked for the Bendix Corporation in the US. And he came up with the design for the first truly automatic domestic washing machine – the first appliance that we might recognise as the kind of washing machine we all use today.