Who Invented the Microwave Popcorn? (Invention Timeline Explained)

Whenever we go to the movies or hold a movie marathon at home, we automatically think of popcorn. The buttery, delicious smell of popcorn and the enticing sound the kernels make as they pop seem to trigger a memory that makes our mouths water. Before, we could only enjoy popcorn if we put corn kernels on a stove or an air popper and sprinkled the condiments we liked. Now, with technological advances and the food industry, we can enjoy microwave popcorn whenever we want. However, have you ever wondered how microwave popcorn came to be? In this article, let’s take a quick dive into its history and evolution.

Who invented the microwave popcorn?

Approximately 5600 years ago, ancient men already used corn to make popcorn. Herbert Dick and Earle Smith unearthed the evidence in a dry cave in New Mexico in 1948, in a place called the bat cave. They saw popped kernels, and carbon dating showed they came from the era. 

Additional evidence also showed that ancient people from Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru, alongside other Central and South American places, knew how to pop corn kernels. Historians point out that Aztecs used popped corn kernels as embellishments for ceremonial clothing and ate them. Native Americans also consumed popcorn. Archaeologists also found evidence of popcorn in a cave inhabited by Pueblo Indians in Utah dating back 1000 years. Iroquois Native Americans also showed the French explorers how they cooked popcorn in the Great Lakes region.

People made traditional popcorn when they put corn kernels inside a pot over a stove and waited for them to pop. They also used air poppers and achieved the same results. They added their choice of flavoring and paired the snack with their favorite beverage. Advances in technology saw people making popcorn differently through the years. 

Dr. Percy Spencer of Raytheon Corporation accidentally discovered in 1946 that the magnetron he was working with could melt chocolate. This prompted him to experiment with foods to determine how they would react. He found that corn would pop when in proximity to the magnetron. Spencer and Raytheon loved the idea and developed the concept to create the microwave. Spencer filed the patent for microwave popcorn. However, commercially made microwave popcorn didn’t arrive on the market until 1981, when the microwave became a popular appliance. 

Using its Pillsbury brand, General Mills Corporation improved on the initial product through research. The research led Lawrence Brandberg and David Andreas to invent a microwave popcorn bag that made popcorn more accessible to the masses. Pillsbury also started selling frozen microwave popcorn in supermarkets. Subsequent innovations to the product resulted in a new kind of popcorn bag and a more shelf-stable recipe, which made popcorn a staple for more homes. 

Microwave popcorn’s key contributors (and evolution)

  • Ancient Central, South and North American tribes
    Ancient Central, South, and North American tribes popped corn kernels for food and clothing embellishments

    Ancient people from Central, South and North American tribes popped corn kernels for food and as embellishment for ceremonial clothing. Evidence showed that popped corn kernels were around 5600 years ago.

  • Fredrick J. Myers
    Myers created a device that popped corn with handle that stayed cool.

    The Kentucky resident and inventor patented a device that popped corn that incorporated a handle that stayed cool in 1875. This allowed people to make popcorn without worrying about getting themselves burned.

  • Charles Cretors
    Cretors invented an electric machine that was lightweight and popped corn kernels in oil.

    Charles Cretors revolutionized the selling of popcorn when he invented the electric machine that popped corn kernels in oil in 1885. Eight years later, in 1893, he improved the device and added a contraption that buttered and salted popcorn.

  • Dr. Percy Spencer
    Spencer popped corn kernels in proximity to a magnetron

    Dr. Percy Spencer accidentally discovered that the magnetron he was working with could melt chocolate. So, he experimented on a few foods, such as corn kernels and eggs. The corn kernels popped, leading to the invention of the microwave oven in tandem with Raytheon Corporation.

  • Lawrence Brandberg and David Andreas
    Brandberg and Andreas come up with initial microwave popcorn bag design

    General Mills Corporation using the Pillsbury brand, conducted research led by Lawrence Brandberg and David Andreas to develop a suitable microwave popcorn bag design. As a result, the duo invented the first microwave popcorn bag, which allowed people to cook frozen popcorn in microwave ovens at home whenever they wanted.

When was the microwave popcorn invented?

Dr. Percy Spencer invented the microwave popcorn accidentally when he worked on the magnetron for Raytheon Company in 1946. He saw the chocolate in his pocket melted and experimented on other food, specifically corn kernels, and eggs. The corn kernels popped when in proximity to the magnetron. They developed the idea for the microwave, and Dr. Spencer filed a patent for microwave popcorn. However, microwave popcorn became commercially available in 1981 when microwave ovens became a staple household appliance in US households. 

A brief history of the microwave popcorn

Tracing the history of microwave popcorn starts with the ancient people who lived in North, South, and Central America. Archaeologists unearthed evidence dating as far back as 5600 years showing that ancient men knew how to pop corn kernels for food. The Aztecs also used popped corn kernels to embellish their ceremonial dresses and for food. The Native American tribes also used to cook popcorn, as evidenced by traces of the food in a Utah cave which was believed to be a Pueblo Indian dwelling place. 

Although popping corn kernels was quite easy, as one only had to place them inside a pot over a stove and wait for them to pop, innovation brought popcorn to the forefront in the 1800s. In 1875 Frederick J. Myers, a resident from Kentucky, came up with a corn-popping device with a stay-cool handle, making popcorn cooking safer. Sellers sold popcorn wherever they could, mostly in fairs, concession stands, and stores. However, popcorn became more popular when vendors began carrying around popping machines with them. Charles Cretors made this possible in 1885. He invented a lightweight electric machine that would popped corn kernels in oil. This allowed the vendors to move through the crowds to sell their products. After eight years, he innovated the design that added a contraption which put salt and butter on the popcorn. 

Cretors’ devices also coincided with the rise of commercial popcorn brands. IAlbert Dickinson Company of Iowa sold popcorn kernels under Big Buster and Little Buster during the 1880s, making popcorn more popular for homemakers who wanted a healthy snack. In 1892, a Utah resident named James T. Nvoods patented a machine coating fresh popcorn with sugar syrup. This preserved the snack and helped make popcorn easy to package. Also, Frederick and Lewis Rueckheim made popcorn in small batches using a popper that was handheld. They innovated a combination in 1896 which became quite popular – the Cracker Jack which was crunchy popcorn combined with salty peanuts with molasses coating.

Popcorn gradually grew into people’s consciousness, especially when it became a go-to snack in movie theaters and concession stands. The Great Depression also made popcorn an affordable luxury item as it only cost 10 cents a bag. However, in 1946, Dr. Percy Spencer discovered that the magnetron could melt food as his chocolate bar melted in his pocket when he worked near the machine. He experimented with corn kernels and eggs, and he popped the kernels. He and Raytheon Company created the first microwave, and Spencer patented microwave popcorn. 

Commercially available popcorn didn’t arrive until 1981, when microwave ovens became a staple household appliance. Microwave popcorn came with perishable butter and needed refrigeration. A Pillsbury product came frozen, which led them to do research conducted by Lawrence Brandberg and David Andreas to develop a suitable microwave popcorn bag. Microwave popcorn became a hit. Other food manufacturers jumped in and innovated the process. Orville Redenbacher and his partner Charlie Bowman developed a corn kernel that expanded bigger than what Americans were used to, and it helped spur another popcorn revolution.  

The microwave popcorn timeline

  1. 5600 years ago
    Ancient men popped corn kernels for food and fashion

    Civilizations from North, South and Central America popped corn kernels for food and clothing embellishment.

  2. 1875
    Frederick J. Myers created the first corn-popping device with stay-cool handle

    Myers’ device allowed people to cook popcorn without fear of getting burned.

  3. 1885-1893
    Charles Cretors invented and improved on a lightweight electric popping machine

    Cretors’ machines allowed vendors to go through crowds selling fresh popcorn. His subsequent innovation added salt and butter to the freshly popped corn.

  4. 1946-1981 onwards
    Dr. Percy Spencer invented the microwave popcorn and other inventors innovated the product and process

    Dr. Percy Spencer discovered that food would cook with a magnetron in 1946. So he made the first microwave oven. In 1981, microwave ovens became a staple appliance, and microwave popcorn slowly began its rise and popularity. Several innovations helped microwave popcorn become ubiquitous.

Where was the microwave popcorn invented?

According to accounts, the first microwave popcorn was invented in Massachusetts when Dr. Percy Spencer discovered that magnetrons could cook food. However, microwave popcorn in a bag was first innovated in Golden Valley Microwave Foods, Incorporated, located in Edina, Minnesota. 

The importance of microwave popcorn

  • It popularized popcorn as a healthy food.

    Microwave popcorn coincided with the fitness craze in the 1980s, making it a healthy food alternative.

  • It spurred innovation in bag technology.

    Seeking to create a better product, several companies innovated microwave popcorn bag technology.

  • It spurred food science research.

    Orville Redenbacher and Charlie Bowman created a corn kernel hybrid that popped bigger than what most Americans were used to, leading to a popcorn boom.

  • It spawned more popcorn-related products.

    Subsequent innovations led to the production of other popcorn-related items such as flavor and pre-popped popcorn in a bag.

Microwave popcorn by the numbers

  • 424 According to the USDA, a low-fat microwave 100g popcorn bag would provide someone with 424 calories in addition to 9.5 grams of fat and 14.2 grams of fiber.
  • 2-4 Two to four minutes is the recommended time to microwave a bag of popcorn without burning the contents.
  • 2-3Manufacturers recommend listening to the pops to determine whether the popcorn is ready or not. They say that popping sounds between 2-3 seconds mean your bag is cooked. 
  • 1946This is the year when Dr. Percy Spencer accidentally discovered that corn kernels popped in proximity to a magnetron. 

Five facts about microwave popcorn

  • Microwave popcorn is gluten-free.

    Microwave popcorn doesn’t contain wheat, rye, or barley gluten. People with certain gastrointestinal disorders can consume microwave popcorn.

  • Microwave popcorn is a good source of carbohydrates.

    Microwave popcorn is not junk food and is, in fact, made from whole grain. This makes it a good carbohydrate source.

  • Microwave popcorn is nutritious.

    A single portion of microwave popcorn contain more antioxidants called polyphenols than fruits and vegetables.

  • Microwave popcorn is the first food to be microwaved deliberately.

    Dr. Percy Spencer experimented on corn kernels when he discovered magnetrons could melt chocolate. The first microwave popcorn is thus the first food deliberately microwaved.

  • Americans consume 52 quarts per person of microwave popcorn yearly.

    Estimates state that Americans consume 17 billion quarts of microwave popcorn per year. This means every man, woman, or child eats 52 quarts per year.

FAQs about microwave popcorn

  • Is microwave popcorn healthy?

     Microwave popcorn is healthy. A single portion of popcorn contains more antioxidants called polyphenols than fruits and vegetables. 

  • Who consumes the most microwave popcorn?

    Americans consume the most microwave popcorn globally, eating 17 billion quarts yearly. This translates to 52 quarts of microwave popcorn per person.

  • Is microwave popcorn made from GMOs?

    Although 92% of corn in the USA is a GMO, microwave popcorn is made from corn that isn’t a GMO.

  • How many flavors could you put in microwave popcorn?

    Recent statistics show that there are more than 40 flavors that you could put in microwave popcorn.

  • Who made the first microwave popcorn popping bag?

    Researchers and inventors Lawrence Brandberg and David Andreas came up with the first microwave popcorn popping bag in the 1970s. They were granted a patent in 1981.

Leave a Comment