I love a good success story, where a regular person comes up with a fantastic new invention and makes a pile of money from it.  Sadly, there have been others who never profited from their genius.

Alexey Leonidovich Pajitnov, who invented the video game Tetris, received no royalties because he was employed by the Soviet Union.  Poor Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster, who created Superman, only received $130 for the rights to the Man of Steel.

And Maine’s own Percy Spencer was paid $2 for inventing the microwave oven.

According to the New England Historical Society, Spencer was born in Howland in 1894.  His father died 18 months later, and his mother sent him to live with an aunt and uncle.  The uncle died when Spencer was 7, and he moved around New England as his aunt bounced from job to job.

Spencer left school after the fifth grade to work full time in a spool factory.  When the factory decided to install electricity, Spencer was intrigued by the new technology and applied to be one of the electricians.  He successfully completed the job through book study, and trial and error.  Later he joined the Navy to learn about the exciting new field of wireless radio.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that Spencer was the only sailor on his ship who used his free time to study trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, physics, metallurgy and radio technology textbooks.  In the process he became a self-taught engineer, and one who would become highly respected in his field.

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After World War I, Spencer became the fourth employee of the new Raytheon Corp., and mastered the art of designing vacuum tubes.  One of his colleagues claimed that Spencer could make a vacuum tube out of a sardine can.  The company was working on the development of radar during the second World War, and it was then that Spencer’s famous melted candy bar led to the microwave oven.

While testing a magnetron, which was part of a radar system, Spencer noticed that the candy bar in his pocket melted.  He decided to investigate this phenomenon, and the next day brought some popcorn to work.  The kernels popped when held under the magnetron, and Spencer became the inventor of microwave popcorn.  Then he microwaved an egg, which exploded in the face of a skeptical coworker.

Percy Spencer received $2 from Raytheon Corp. for its microwave oven patent. Courtesy New England Historical Society

Raytheon patented the microwave oven, and gave Spencer his $2 reward, which was their standard gratuity for employee patents. That might seem cheap, but in fact the company poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into developing the first microwave in 1947, which turned out to be a commercial flop. The first model was very powerful and could cook a potato in thirty seconds, but it was 7 feet tall, took 20 minutes to warm up, and cost $3,000 ($32,000 in today’s dollars).  Even the first home model was more than 5 feet tall and weighed 750 pounds.

Eventually the sizes and the price tags shrunk, and by 1967 you could buy a microwave for only $495 (around $3,700 today). By 1975, more microwaves were being sold than regular ovens.

Spencer, the self-taught Maine engineer with a fifth-grade education, received several honorary doctorates for his invention, along with other accolades. Tip your hat to his memory the next time you enjoy microwaved popcorn, or a warmed up burger from McDonalds.

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