AKA Percy LeBaron Spencer
Birthplace: Howland, ME
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Scientist, Inventor
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Invented the microwave oven
Military service: US Navy (1912-18)
Percy Spencer's father died when he was an infant, and his mother soon abandoned the family. He was raised by an impoverished aunt and uncle, and had little formal schooling. In his teens he was intrigued by the burgeoning use of electric power and worked as an electric installer, wiring businesses with power. He then joined the Navy, where he was sent to radio school, and after being discharged he worked for Wireless Specialty Apparatus Company, a major manufacturer of commercial and military radio equipment that was eventually absorbed into RCA. He joined Raytheon in the 1920s, and quickly became the company's expert on tube design. During World War II he oversaw the company's exponential increase in manufacturing tubes for military applications, and the mass production of magnetrons (which power radar equipment), which proved of immeasurable value to allied forces in winning that war. An auto-didact, Spencer held more than 300 patents, and counted Vannevar Bush, Omar Bradley, William Hewlett and David Packard as friends.
His discovery of microwave cooking was utterly accidental. In a Raytheon laboratory in 1946, he noticed that he felt a tingling when he stood near a magnetron, and the candy bar in his pocket melted. He was not the first to notice this effect, but others had only been fearful, while Spencer was also curious. He brought in raw popcorn, which started popping when he placed it near the magnetron. Spencer then built a rudimentary metal box with a magnetron in it -- the first microwave oven -- and used it to reheat his lunches. After he wrote a report on his findings, Raytheon patented "high frequency dielectric heating apparatus" in 1946, and began selling microwave ovens for industrial use (more than five feet tall, each oven weighed about 750 pounds) in 1954. Raytheon subsidiary Amana began selling household "RadarRange" ovens in 1967. For his invention, Spencer received no royalties, but he was paid a one-time, two-dollar gratuity from Raytheon -- the same token payment the company made to all inventors on its payroll at that time, for company patents.
Wife: Louise Spencer (three sons)
Son: George Spencer
Son: James Spencer
Son: John Spencer
Raytheon to Vice President (1922-70)
RCA Employee of Wireless Specialty Apparatus Company (1918-22)
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Institute of Radio Engineers
National Inventors Hall of Fame 1999 (posthumous)
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