You can find me in a museum now. But my first residence was the mind of Carl-Arne Breger. He was a Swedish Industrial designer who became famous for object design. He envisioned me in painted and chromed metal- as a foldable cup, with an underlying hot plate from Rorstrand Ceramics. My insides in galvanized stainless steel and a pistachio green cuboid as a base. Length: forty centimetres, width: forty-four centimetres, height: forty centimetres. I changed lives, got embroiled into a discussion between genders and even created a whole new food culture.
You may have heard of me.
I am the microwave oven. But more specifically, I am Carl Arne-Breger’s Cupol Microwave Oven for Husqvarna. An attempt at revolution. In Carl’s mind, I was shaped curiously. I was half of a sphere; modelled on a cupola. Almost like an embryo. My date of birth? 1969. I was his brainchild, created for the Swedish company Husqvarna. It was the children of my brother-a 1967 Amana-who are the shape that you are most familiar with now; the hollow box which is now a fixture in so many kitchens.
As our shape evolved, our function devolved. We devolved from what is considered to be the thought process of the predominantly male engineer. We did go through a brief moment where we were celebrated as state of the art technology, and then were relegated to product, commodity.1 Let me translate that for you; from seen, we became unseen. Like those landline telephones. We’ve hit rock bottom now- an unremarkable appliance that you won’t even think about twice. That means my generation is obsolete. Don’t believe me? I was pinned on Pinterest into ‘Images: Retro circa 1960’s 1970’s’.
My brethren started to get stocked on shelves at a time when women started going back to the workforce. We are a product of revolution, yet we haven’t revolutionized much. We were created as a promise for male buyers2, but that promise didn’t work out the way it was supposed to. How do I know this? Well, the Industrial revolution eliminated the work of men (and children) – but left the domestic quarter, which was, and is, predominantly the realm of women, untouched. I mean, sure, now we allow women to cook in bulk, and children use us to heat up the leftovers, but that’s the thing: cooking. Women are still cooking. We reduced menial work, but not the time spent on the task. Manual cooking has not been eliminated, and our ownership has done nothing to encourage men to involve themselves in the process. In a 1970’s microwave oven television commercial, a man helping in the kitchen is made light of: “It makes the cook’s life easy. Of course, good help is still hard to find. ”
I’ve seen the marketing campaigns, and it’s overwhelmingly the happy housewives next to us; the well- coiffed, heeled women pulling out copper coloured roasts and describing how we made life easier for them, especially now that some them had paying jobs. “Supermoms”, those women are called. 3 I know that when we came into the market we were considered dangerous because we use electromagnetic waves- high frequency radio waves to excite the molecules in food. Our waves are not strong enough to genetically alter food, or make it radioactive, but people are afraid of big words. (Honestly, you should start calling cell phones microwave phone because that’s what they are, and seeing that most of the people in the world have them installed semi permanently as an ear-piece, maybe concerns about cancer and radiation poisoning should be redirected.) And then the companies were afraid that we won’t sell, so they marketed us through association and perception – the soft, non-threatening female population. We were created as something that men would buy, but we spent all our time being handled by women. Picking up the mannerisms of people you are constantly surrounded with is a very real possibility, and we decided to change our gender.4
But no one was using us to cook! There was one woman who used us to vary the amount of spice into different portions. She cooked the curry on her stovetop, divided it up into bowls, and used us to assimilate different quantities of chilli in each portion. That’s it. No one used us to- what did the advertisements say? Bake a potato in 5 minutes? Crisp bacon in 90 seconds? Cook a 5 pound rib roast in 35 minutes? I may look like something out of which a Thanksgiving Dinner is produced, but my nieces and nephews are too… well, square, for anyone to entertain thoughts of roast chicken and turduckens. The other day, a group of foreign exchange students were exchanging the hacks of easy, effortless, inexpensive meals. 5The Asian girl was explaining how she was using me to cook rice in a bowl. I was simply not prepared for the shocked outburst of the gathering. One girl –Indian, I think- just flat out refused to believe that I could be used to actually cook something. Another girl narrated how her father had tried to cook an egg in a microwave, and it had exploded inside. I could almost unscrew my bolts out in frenzy. And I had once been described as ‘The greatest cooking discovery since fire’. I mean, some people in Sweden have started hiding cash inside us.
I think it was Ruth Cowan who said that women stopped using us to cook because it was too much of a pain to open us, take things out, stir them and put them back inside. Also, she postulated that most of the things that we made tasted terrible. Well, the micro wave was used to spot Nazi warplanes on their way to bomb British Isles; our principle wasn’t really to make things delicious, Ruth.
There aren’t a lot of me around; not unless you count the rounded ones with the lift-lid. But my box shaped nieces and nephews have become so common that they are renewed constantly, and consequently dumped with the slightest excuse; one door half-unhinged, with birds of carrion circling in the sky. Some of them have been selected for organ donation, but it’s really arbitrary. I suppose it depends on who bought them in the first place. Some people sell them to Goodwill, and they are harvested for glass and metals which would be toxic to the environment. Some people just put them on the Defrost mode, shut the door and they end up in a black bag in a garbage truck. Some people cut the vacuum tube, and our bodies end up in landfills, and then we rust and decay for generations, just like every other abandoned electronic gadget; and we’re not that dangerous as they come. But since we don’t procreate the way humans do, it would be nice if parts of us would still circulate around. You have no idea how hard it is to see entire wastelands of corpses which can still be put into use but aren’t, and with new of us constantly factory generated. Just because I don’t follow any religion doesn’t mean my afterlife should be selective. If growth is just a secondary spin off which reveals an architecture that is already configured6, then my manner of growing is in the different ways that I am able to be used. Growing allows people to bridge the gap between the now and the then; hence, if I am now used as storage for cash, maybe instead of being ashamed of it, I can take pride in it. In traditional Hindu systems, the human life is divided into four periods, where each period focuses on fulfilment and development of the individual, where the individual does profoundly different things7until they finally renunciate life. Why is this not relevant for me? Why can I not leave life one step at a time instead of clearly demarcated boundaries of life and death?
Museums are one of those curiously grotesque structures that blur that boundary, actually. And I would know. I’ve been in Röhsska for ________ years. We’re housed in this semi-conscious, semi-alive state. We’re not like one of those Viking ships in Vikingskipshuset på Bygdøy, which have been dredged up from the bottom of the sea and are quite literally wrecks. All of us are usable, but we’re not used to do anything. This affects my integrity, and the integrity of the materials that were used to make me. Humans were given a heart to pump blood, lungs to pull and push out air, legs to wander the earth, arms to bring things close to them. Bodies are tools. They are made to be fixable, to be picked up and dusted off until they are unquestionably beyond repair. They were not made to be framed in bones. If the beauty of a design is in its function, then I am the ugliest thing in the world.
- Cynthia Cockburn, Susan Ormroad, Gender and Technology in the making (Sage Publications, 1994)
- Cockburn, Ormroad, Gender and Technology in the making
- This is a conclusion that I reached after watching 7 commercials about the microwave oven from the 1970’s. I also looked at several posters that advertised certain abilities of the microwave oven.
- Verbeek, P.-P., and P. Kockelkoren. The Things That Matter (DESIGN ISSUES. 14, no. 3: 28-42, 1998)
- This was a discussion with some fellow exchange students about our different food cultures.
- Hallam, Elizabeth, and Tim Ingold, Making and Growing: Anthropological Studies of Organisms and Artefacts, 2014
- Alban Widgery, The Principles of Hindu Ethics (International Journal of Ethics, 40(2): p 232-245, 1930). The Ashram system is one facet of theDharma concept in Hinduism, where the human life is divided into four periods; that of student, householder, retirement and renunciation. It is also a component of the ethical theories in Indian philosophy, where it is combined with four proper goals of human life (Purusartha), for fulfilment, happiness and spiritual liberation.