Rick Robinson

Feb 13th 2020

Military Technology Gave You Microwave Popcorn


The role of the space program in creating earthly “space spinoff” products, including grocery items, is a matter of legend. (It is also true.) Less well-known — but with even greater impact on your kitchen shelves and countertop — is the role of military technology in the development of the modern kitchen.

Some of these defense innovations found their way into your kitchen by accident. Others — most of them, in fact — are no accident at all, but arose out of efforts to keep soldiers (along with sailors, airmen and marines) well-fed and healthy.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “An army marches on its stomach.” Over the ages, for every battle won by better weapons or tactics, a dozen have been won by soldiers who went into battle healthy and well-fed, facing enemies who were half-starved, scattered to forage for food or who deserted outright in search of something to eat.

Just Open a Can

Napoleon himself contributed to one of the first and most familiar kitchen innovations of the dawning industrial era: canned foods. Until his day, the list of foods that would keep well without spoiling was very limited. Heavily salted meat and “hardtack” biscuit were the staple foods of soldiers and seamen.

Seeking better rations for his troops, Napoleon offered a prize for a way to keep food fresh. And, writes Nicola Twilley of Popular Science, the competition gave a key boost to the new spoilage-preventing technology of canning. We’ve been stealing a bite or two straight from the can ever since.

“Nuke It” in the Microwave

Technology Companies like Northrop Grumman provide extensive capabilities in microwave technology essential to many sensors, communication systems and even directed energy weapons. But microwaves can also do a great job heating up a three-day old burrito. A World War II military innovation, radar, gets the credit for enabling you to “nuke” food quickly. And unlike canned foods, this piece of kitchen technology was a sheer accident.

As Evan Ackerman recounts at IEEE Spectrum, the accident happened just after the war in 1946. A researcher was working with a magnetron, the device that generates the microwaves used by radar sets. He had a candy bar in his pocket, and in the middle of his work, he felt something warm and soft. Microwave energy had melted the candy bar.

Further development led to the microwave oven, but its origins in military research explains why people still sometimes call the kitchen microwave a radar oven.

From McRibs to Power Bars

Radar tech may have reached the kitchen by accident, but World War II was when military kitchen technology research really took off. As with Napoleon, the goal was to provide service members with a wider variety of food that kept well and could be prepared easily.

These research efforts, now centered at the Combat Feeding Directorate of the Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center (NSRDEC) in Massachusetts, began as early as the 1920s at the Quartermaster Subsistence School, then in the 1930s at the Chicago Quartermaster Depot. With the coming of war, universities and industry were enlisted in the effort which, according to Popular Science, gave us everything from the “prefabricated module of meat” — it sounds tastier as a McRib — to pressure-sealed packages of fruit juice, and much more.

Even the exercise enthusiast’s power bar, which many think of as thoroughly contemporary, goes back to World War II, when their precursors were designed as emergency rations for the battlefield. And if you don’t really like them very much, blame the Pentagon. The original specification said that they should not taste too good so that GIs would save them until needed instead of munching them down first chance they got.

Military Research in the Deli Section

The battlefield has changed since World War II, not to mention Napoleon. But one thing that has not changed is the critical importance of wholesome food to troops’ health, energy and morale. Outdoor Life testifies that the military’s MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) — now also a staple for wilderness hikers — actually tastes pretty good, even if servicemembers won’t admit it. (Griping about the chow is a soldier’s timeless right!)

And new military research creations continue to flow into our kitchens. As Nadia Whitehead recounts at NPR, one of the NSRDEC’s more recent innovations, dating to the 2000s, is high pressure processing (HPP). If your deli meat has no preservatives, it was probably made using HPP.

Military technology innovations that help keep that pilot healthy and alert could well end up doing the same for you and your family in the kitchen.