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No. 1032:
Microwave Oven

Today, a parable about the way we use invention. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

What do you cook in your microwave oven? What kind of watch do you wear on your wrist? How well do you know the buttons on your VCR and the features in your word-processor? The inventive muse offers up a great banquet of ideas. Most die before they ever get to market. Some get into stores, only to fail when we don't buy them. Then there are inventions we buy and lay aside.

Take the digital watch: most of us have owned or still own one. But walk into any room full of people and count the digital watches. You'll find, maybe, ten percent. The circular analog watch has built itself into our metaphorical substrate, and it will not be replaced.

The technology of cooking is even closer to our hearts than timekeeping. Microwave ovens took America by storm in the 1980s. Now eight out of nine households have one. Yet, last week's New York Times reports quite another side to the microwave story.

How do we use our microwaves? I use it to pop popcorn, reheat coffee, or to warm up lunch. My wife, more confident in the face of new technology, says, "It also does what double boilers do, but you've got to learn the variable power settings."

And so you must. But even then, you're far from any full spectrum of cooking. The microwave has proven useless for baking pastries. It turns steak into shoe leather. The microwave acts on the water in food -- brings it to a boil and then cooks food at a uniform 212 F. Don't ever try to hard-boil an egg in a microwave. The shell is a sealed container. It'll explode.

In 1988, food companies offered almost a thousand special microwaveable foods. The 1981 Betty Crocker Microwave Cookbook was a best-seller. Today, fewer than half those special foods survive, and the 1991 revision of the book did poorly. Today, you still have a microwave oven, but it sits off to the side -- with your electric can opener and your toaster. You do your real cooking on the stove and in a conventional oven.

Microwave oven defenders point out wonderful things it can do if we just learn the moves. Well, so can our VCRs and word processors. But the microwave oven is a second-class citizen in today's kitchen. Habit is a strange thing. Mark Twain once wrote,

. . . the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid . . . will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again -- and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

Sure, we could do more with the microwave. But having exploded an egg, melted a gilt-edged dish, or ruined a steak, we're like the cat who sat on a hot stove-lid. We go back to familiar things: the old oven and the stove. They, after all, define the home. They remind us who we are and where we have been.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Goldner, D., The Revolution that Never Happened. The New York Times: The Living Arts, Wednesday, May 31, 1995, pp. B1 and B4.`

"But tell them in the end notes," my wife asks me, "that the microwave oven does a fine job of cooking corn on the cob and in the husk. And it'll give you a great baked potato."

For more on circular analog timepieces, see Episodes 881 and 966.