“Popular culture” is a phrase that can refer to a number of things that, collectively, identify our tastes in what we like to do with our leisure time. I usually refer to it in terms of entertainment, such as movies, television, music, and whatever else we indulge in to amuse ourselves.
This year marks a pair of milestones that relate to everyone’s favorite pastime: eating. I personally eat to live, rather than live to eat. I have my favorite dishes and snacks, just like anybody else, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about food. However, two innovations which first presented themselves to the public in 1968 deserve at least a brief mention on their 50th birthday: for dining at home,the microwave oven; for dining out, the Big Mac.
The microwave oven has become such an integral part of virtually every kitchen that it would be unusual to walk in and not see one nestled into a corner of the countertop. For the sheer convenience of defrosting or heating a quick meal, it has become one of the most relied-upon appliances in the house. And its existence is the result–as is the case with many modern conveniences–of a curious mind being sidetracked while working on technology for an altogether different purpose.
Credit for the microwave oven can be traced back to Percy LeBaron Spencer, an engineer working for the Raytheon Corporation in the 1940s. While working on radar-related experiments in the Raytheon labs in 1946, Spencer began testing a new vacuum tube called a magnetron. Standing beside the device one day, he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. He later tested several kernels of popcorn, and then an egg, all of which reacted as we would expect them to do under strong heat. Spencer concluded that they had been exposed to low-density microwave energy, and turned his attention to devising a crude box to contain the energy and thus heat whatever object he placed inside.
Raytheon engineers began work on Spencer’s discovery, and by late ’46, the company filed a patent for an oven that could cook food via microwaves. The following year, the first such oven for commercial use (mostly in restaurants) hit the market, and was named the Radarange. But there were drawbacks: the bulky unit stood almost six feet tall, weighed over 750 pounds, and cost about $5,000 each. It also required special plumbing to water cool the magnetron tube.
Refinements continued, and the cost began to come down, but the unit and the cabinet in which it was encased still took up as much room as a refrigerator. Raytheon licensed its patent to Tappan in 1955 for the purpose of developing a home use version of the oven, leading to the first home model selling for just under $1,300, but still with an unwieldy size.
In 1965, Raytheon took over the Amana Refrigeration company, and less than three years later, the 100-volt, countertop microwave oven, seen here, was introduced to the general public. Some fear by consumers over the perceived dangers of frequent use eventually faded (even though the term “to nuke” a meal has persisted), and by 1975, the use of microwave ovens first exceeded that of gas ranges.
On September 18, 1999, Percy Spencer, who died in 1970, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
For those who had not yet warmed up to the microwave oven (pun intended) in 1968, there was a new reason to stop at the local McDonald’s restaurant whenever a hunger pang struck. McDonald’s had already been America’s most successful fast food chain, having opened its 1,000th restaurant that year–when Jim Delligatti, manager of the Uniontown, Pennsylvania McDonald’s, saw his gastronomic creation become part of the company’s permanent menu. Delligatti, who first became a McDonald’s manager in 1957, tried in the mid-’60s to convince the company honchos
that they needed to sell a bigger burger, and suggested they consider his own super burger invention, only to be turned down. The corporate chiefs finally agreed to let him sell it in 1967, provided that he use only ingredients already supplied to each franchise. Delligatti sold the first Big Mac in his Uniontown store that year, and was successful enough to encourage the company to hold further consumer tests throughout the Pittsburgh region. The Big Mac began
selling nationally in 1968, for 49 cents. Delligatti didn’t receive any extra remuneration for his world-famous, 540-calorie invention, but he did receive a plaque. The Big Mac ingredients, of course, became an often-repeated litany in its advertising campaign jingle: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.”
For those whose appetites didn’t require such a hearty snack, the chain’s hot apple pie was also introduced in 1968 (consequently, cases of burning the inside of one’s mouth reached historic levels).
Delligatti passed away in 2016 at the age of 98. And, while McDonald’s has taken its lumps in recent years, especially with cultural trends favoring healthier choices (even in fast food), the Big Mac has, for better or worse, become part of our culture–not just in the U.S., but around the world.
Until next week…