While a high school education is an important foundation for most of us, some of the world’s brightest people never graduated. Thomas Edison, had barely three months of formal education. Albert Einstein dropped out of high school at age 15. And Percy Spencer never graduated grammar school.
Percy Spencer might not be a household name, but his invention — the microwave oven — is in almost every American home.
Born in 1894, Spencer’s early years were less than ideal. His father died when he was three and his mother abandoned him soon after. By age 12 he had dropped out of school completely to work as an apprentice in a mill. He joined the Navy in 1912, where he learned electronic radio signaling, or wireless telegraphy as they referred to it at the time.
Spencer eventually joined the Raytheon Co. and created a more efficient way to manufacture magnetrons, the high-powered vacuum tubes that generate microwave radio signals used by radars.
While standing in front of an operating magnetron, Spencer noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. Intrigued, Spencer put an popcorn kernels in front of the magnetron and watched in delight as the kernels popped all over the lab.
Spencer and Raytheon harnessed their new discovery and introduced the first commercial microwave oven in 1947. It was the size of a refrigerator, weighed 750 pounds and cost $5,000. The first home microwaves were introduced in the mid 1950s, though it took 20 years before the the devices became a popular kitchen appliance.
Spencer would earn more than 300 patents during his lifetime and was a senior VP and member of Raytheon’s board of directors.