Percy Spencer, Education, and Technological Advancement

In testing the idea that there has been more change in the day-to-day technological reality from, say, 1860 to 1910 as opposed to 1960 to 2010 (see the last four paragraphs here for a discussion of this), one possible change that I thought of in favour of the latter was the microwave oven. I imagined them appearing in the mid-1970s.

Not quite: microwave heating was discovered in 1945, and the first commercial microwave oven was invented in 1947. It was initially sold to commercial food operators due to its costs and immense size, but the first domestic microwave oven came on the market in 1955. The first compact microwave oven was introduced in 1967. So, it may just marginally count – a person in 1960 probably would have heard of microwave ovens, but they weren’t that common.

From this, I found out about Percy Spencer, the discoverer of microwave heating. Spencer was one of the most accomplished American engineers of his time, and was Senior Vice-President of Raytheon Corp. What was his schooling like? The answer is: he had several years of conventional schooling, which didn’t occur until he was 18 or 19.

His education (primary source: Reader’s Digest, August 1958, p. 114, here):

– Born in 1894. Father dies at 18 months.

– Is raised by aunt and uncle on rural farm in Maine.

– Learns how to chop wood, hoe, saddle a horse, help with the preserving, skin a deer, saw a straight line, and improvise solutions to various problems involved in a farm.

– At 12, he starts working at a spool mill.

– At 16 (1910), although he has no formal knowledge of electricity, he signs up to be one of three men to install a new electricity system at the local paper mill. He learns by trial and error, and becomes a competent electrician.

– At 18 (1912), he joins the U.S. Navy with the intent of learning wireless telegraphy, gets hold of textbooks (from which supposedly he teaches himself in significant part while standing watch at night), and enters the Navy’s radio school.

– He gets a position at Wireless Specialty Apparatus Co.

– He gets a position at Raytheon Corp., where his experiments bring him into contact with many of the best physicists at M.I.T.

Several aspects of his accomplishments I found particulary interesting:

1. Spencer led Allied efforts to produce working models of combat radar equipment during World War II, which was the highest priority U.S. military research project after the Manhattan Project at that time.

2. In the story of how he discovered the heating properties of microwaves, he was visiting a lab where experiments with magnetrons (tubes that generate high-frequency radio waves) were being done. He noticed that a chocolate bar in his shirt pocket had begun to melt. Other scientists had noticed a similar sort of phenomenon when working with the tubes, but Spencer followed up by doing further experiments specifically aimed at rapidly heating food.

This is similar to another incident. While Spencer was experimenting with photoelectric vacuum tubes, one developed a small leak. Instead of simply discarding the tube, he was curious what affects it would have on the functioning of the tube. From this he discovered that the tube’s photoelectric quality had increased roughly ten times.

These sorts of examples point to an hypothesis about scientific discovery: they come about from a specific combination of preparedness, sensateness, and curiosity. Which leads to the next point:

3. Relatedly, much of Spencer’s work was marked by an insatiable, boyish curiosity.

I have my doubts as to whether this sort of curiosity is supported by typical, extended contemporary schooling. Consider this comment about Spencer:

“[A]n M.I.T. scientist explained to me how Spencer operates: “The educated scientist knows many things won’t work. Percy doesn’t know what can’t be done.”

I think this is backwards. From all accounts, Spencer was better educated than most peer engineers, and that is one of the reasons why he didn’t develop mistaken beliefs such as the M.I.T scientist was alluding to.

4. He meets pre-eminent scientists not by becoming an academic scientist, but by going to work for a company where in turn he is exposed to scientists from M.I.T.

This is similar to Faraday, who first met pre-eminent Continental scientists not by being a pre-eminent scientist himself (at this point), but by being the amanuensis to Sir Humphry Davy while Davy traveled the Continent.

4 thoughts on “Percy Spencer, Education, and Technological Advancement

  1. Pingback: Science, Black Swans, and Insider-Outsiders | Anthony Burgoyne

  2. fioleeluver

    I’m doing a report on Percy Spencer for school.
    Could you add some more accomplishments? 😉

  3. admin Post author

    Hi fioleeluver,

    The Reader’s Digest article link above doesn’t seem to work anymore, but maybe you can find Reader’s Digest archives and find more information from that article? Good researching (literally, to ‘search’).

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