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Klaatu and the amazing Radarange that wouldn’t die

A case of demystifying the ubiquitous microwave oven

After a poignant farewell ritual, including a phone call to the Iowa customer service centre listed in our 1973 owner’s manual to see if it could be repaired, we’ve finally gotten rid of our of old Amana Radarange microwave oven. It looked like something Klaatu might have used on board his spacecraft to heat up snacks in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

First off, it was pretty amazing we even got rid of the thing. For despite its cracked door lining and dodgy control panel it still basically worked. Being the practical Canadians that we are, we are not wont to dispose of things that still function, believing this kind of karma will return to us when we’re facing end-of-life morbidity.

Besides, we’d gotten attached to its high chrome finish and cool retro vibe. Go ahead, check out eBay – Amana Radaranges are hot memorabilia, when you can find them.

In the 1970s, winning an Amana Radarange on a TV game show was today’s equivalent of winning, say, a round of Survivor – reaching some kind of pinnacle of low-culture achievement which everyone gets excited about without understanding why.

At least in the case of the Radarange, the Amana name had some collateral. I mean, the service centre number listed for 1973 still worked in 2005. Now that’s quality.

So I wonder if we did the right thing by letting it go. Given our Radarange was circa 1973 – yes, the owners who renovated our home were organized enough to keep all their original receipts and owner’s manuals in labelled filing folders – meant it was one of the first countertop Radaranges.

Granted, microwave ovens, albeit ones pretty different to the models we’re used to, were around before that. Raytheon Corporation, which later took over Amana, introduced both domestic and commercial microwave ovens in 1947.

An employee at Raytheon won the company contest to name the new oven by coming up with "Radarange". He was obviously playing on the fact that the magnetron vacuum tube, which produces low-density microwave radiation and is central to microwave ovens, was developed in World War II to bolster Britain’s radar capabilities against incoming Nazi planes.

Jumping the cosmic gap between stopping the Germans and heating food was totally accidental. Dr. Percy Spencer, a scientist working at Raytheon who invented the magnetron, was testing one when he realized that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. Next, he tried putting popcorn kernels near the tube when it was activated, then watched the first version of microwave popcorn fly around the lab.

Early domestic microwave ovens were huge, like fridges. It wasn’t until Amana came up with the first domestic countertop microwave ovens in 1967 that they started to resemble the models we all use today.

Sales were slow during the first few years, partly due to price, but more because nobody knew what the hell these things were and how they worked their black magic. Fear and mistrust surrounded microwave ovens from Day One.

Regardless, other companies joined the marketing trend. By the early ’70s, prices had decreased enough while the ovens’ capabilities had increased, so that by the time the Radarange we owned hit market, it was a unit that could stand up to today’s expectations. Now that’s good design.

By comparison, the first commercial microwave oven sounds hilarious.

It was designed for a Boston restaurant. And Klaatu would have fallen in love with it, if he liked his women on the Valkyrien side. It was a big squarish, metal block standing almost six feet high and weighing 750 pounds. The knobs and buttons made a pleasant if somewhat blank-looking face with a big mouth that yawned open when the oven door was down.

You needed to cool the thing with water, so fancy plumbing had to be installed, adding to the not-so-trifling price tag of US $5,000, in 1947 dollars. Man, you’d really have to want one of those babies.

The first microwave oven I crossed paths with was also a commercial model, not as fantastic as the one described above, but still compelling. It was central to a U.S.-based fast food restaurant that opened up on the corner of Vancouver’s Robson and Cardero in 1970.

If you’d walked into Sam’s Roast Beef back then, one of us front counter gals in a perky red and white striped mini and white go-go boots would have served you, fast. As the name suggests, the mainstay was roast beef, or pastrami or ham that was sliced from huge slabs of meat and tucked into Frisbee-sized buns before being re-heated in a – gasp – microwave oven.

None of us had ever seen one before, so we were as skeptical as those 1940s housewives. And when Jacques, the French-Canadian manager who always wore a tie, warned us not to ever, ever, ever put a sandwich in the microwave in its aluminum wrapper because we’d start a fire, we didn’t believe him for a microsecond – until we tested it for ourselves. To a counter girl, we were amazed as flames and smoke erupted after about two seconds of nuking a pastrami-to-go wrapped in foil.

After that we had a new anxiety-based respect for, if no better understanding of the microwave oven.

That, in a nutshell, is really why we parted with our old Radarange. After nine years of telling everyone to duck as it was operating so they wouldn’t cook their brain every time they walked past the cracked oven door, enough was enough. But maybe we over-reacted.

Microwaves, says scientist Robert Wolke, are not so scary. They are simply waves of electromagnetic radiation – just like radio waves, but with an ultra-short (micro) wavelength and more energy. Modern microwave ovens are totally safe. An old oven with a warped door may pose a hazard by leaking microwaves, but even our old door with the small crack on the inside plastic liner was not a problem.

Microwaves can penetrate glass but not metal, ergo the perforated metal panel inserted in the glass window that lets you see in, but allows no microwaves out. The holes are simply too small for microwaves, with their 4.5-inch wavelength, to pass through.

As for the urban myth that you shouldn’t stand closer than a few feet from a microwave, it’s just that – myth.

So if you see our old Klaatu-like Amana Radarange for sale on eBay, buy it. It’s very cool, and if you stick another piece of Scotch tape on the crack, you’ll even be able to even use it.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who would rather have Klaatu than an oven in her kitchen.