Developed by Tappan in conjunction with Raytheon, the RL-1 was the first microwave oven designed for home use. With a retail price of $1,295, only 34 units were manufactured in 1955, the first year of production. The company sold a total of 1,396 units before production ended in 1964.
When first introduced in the 1950s, microwave ovens were promoted as the wave of the future, the latest in modern electrical cooking. By 2000, microwaves were found in 90 percent of U.S. households. The same technology now used to pop popcorn, defrost a roast, or reheat a casserole originated as a method of detecting ships and planes, as well as tracking and coordinating Allied aircraft during World War II.
In 1940 British physicists discovered a way for generating invisible electromagnetic waves that could bounce back undetected after contact with a ship or plane. Called radar for radio detection and ranging, the British used the technology as an early-warning system. Eighty percent of all magnetrons used by the Allied forces were produced in America by Raytheon.
For Raytheon to survive in a postwar world, it sought commercial uses for its successful war product. Engineer Percy Spencer suggested using the magnetrons, which generated heat from the vibration of molecules reacting to the frequency of the microwaves, for heating food.
Raytheon’s first microwave oven, the Radarange, was bought by a Cleveland restaurant in 1947 for $3,000. The 1955 model produced for home use failed to sell well due to its steep price as well as customer confusion about how to use the appliance. By 1976, a brand-new microwave oven cost less than $300 and people bought them for offices, dorm rooms and break rooms. The microwave has become more than a tool for re-heating—it is a large part of lifestyles that do not always accommodate lengthy cooking times or complex food preparation.
Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.