The following article appeared on page 114 of
the August 1958 Issue of Readers Digest. Among all the news
clippings in my Grandfather's scrapbook, it is this article which
he seems to have pasted with the greatest of care.
Rod Spencer - Grandson
How a self-educated Maine farm boy, filled with
insatiable curiosity, became one of today's most respected experts in the
complex field of electronics
Percy Spencer and His Itch to Know
By Don Murray
PERCY SPENCER is the nosiest man I have ever known. Now 63, he
still has an intense, small boy's compulsion to explore every wonder in
the world around him. The results of his relentless curiosity have touched
the lives of each of us.
Recently I walked into his office at the Raytheon Manufacturing Co. in
Waltham, Mass. - an office befitting the senior vice-president of one of
the nation's largest electronic' manufacturers. "Hi, Don," the
stocky, shirt-sleeved Down-Easter shouted from behind his desk.
"Where'd you get the shoes?"
The moccasin-type shoes weren't that different, but I knew Percy. Were
the shoes comfortable, he asked. Would they wear? Why were they stitched
like that? In a minute I had one shoe off, so that he could examine it. He
wanted to know just how it was made.
The story is typical of Percy Spencer's direct, homey approach, which
he brings even to the miracle world of modern electronics. One day a dozen
years ago he was visiting a lab where magnetrons, the power tubes of radar
sets, were being tested. Suddenly, he felt a peanut bar start to cook in
his pocket. Other scientists had noticed this phenomenon, but Spencer
itched to know more about it.
He sent a boy out for a package of popcorn. When he held it near a
magnetron, popcorn exploded all over the lab. Next morning he brought in a
kettle, cut a hole in the side and put an uncooked egg (in its shell) into
the pot. Then he moved a magnetron against the hole and turned on the
juice. A skeptical engineer peeked over the top of the pot just in time to
catch a faceful of cooked egg. The reason? The yolk cooked faster than the
outside, causing the egg to burst.
Spencer had discovered that you could cook with high-frequency radio
waves. He got a patent on the "radar range," one of the 225 he
holds. The new device will cook a sirloin steak in one minute, a plump
Thanksgiving turkey in little more than half an hour. Used for some time
in restaurants, Pullman diners and ocean liners, radar ranges are now
being produced for the home.
This constant curiosity helped Percy Spencer turn an underprivileged
childhood into an especially privileged one. Born in Howland, Maine, a
remote rural community, he was twice orphaned when a child. His father
died when he was 18 months old, and soon his mother left home, turning
Percy over to an aunt and uncle. The uncle was like a father to him, but
when Percy was only seven, this second father died.
Percy didn't waste time feeling sorry for himself. He was too busy
learning a country boy's chores - how to chop wood, hoe, saddle a horse,
help with the preserving, skin a deer, saw a straight line and improvise
solutions to the problems of survival, a skill famous as "Yankee
When he was 12 he trudged off to the spool mill in the cold, gray Maine
dawn and worked till after sundown. Four years later his curiosity led him
into something new. The local paper mill was to be electrified. Although
he had no formal knowledge of electricity (in 1910 few people knew much
about it), Percy signed on as one of three men to install the system.
Learning entirely by trial and error, he emerged a competent electrician.
When, in 1912, the Titanic sank, the heroism of the
wireless operators sparked the boy's imagination. He joined the Navy to
learn wireless telegraphy. He did not mention his limited education when.
The Navy sent him to its radio school. "I just got hold of a lot of
textbooks and taught myself while I was standing watch at night," he
He has kept up this practice of self-education all his
life-"solving my own situation," he calls it. There is no count
of the hundreds of nights he has spent painfully working out problems in
trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, physics, metallurgy and other areas of
Discharged from the Navy, he went to work for the Wireless Specialty
Apparatus Co., of Boston. Spencer's insatiable curiosity is still
remembered by his co-workers. In those days the whole shop would often
keep going until midnight to finish an order. After the others had left,
Percy would stay behind to test and examine the day's production. "Many's
the time the gang would come back in the morning and find Percy still
there," one of his friends recalls. "He had stayed up all night
just to find out how things worked."
He learned so well that he became a wireless-equipment production boss
in World War 1, and was sent out on trouble-shooting missions by the Navy
when he was barely old enough to vote. Then, during the late '20's and
'30's, he worked with the growing Raytheon company. His experiments
brought him into contact with many of the best physicists at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. One of them told me, "Spencer became one of
the best tube designers in the world; he could make a working tube out of
a sardine can.
In 1929 Spencer was experimenting on photoelectric vacuum tubes when
one developed a small leak. Many another scientist had arrived at same
spot - and discarded the tube. Spencer didn't. Curious to know the
consequences of the leak, he soon discovered that the tube's photoelectric
quality had increased ten times. This was a major step in the development
of the modern TV camera tube.
When the Nazis marched into Poland in 1939, Percy Spencer became a man
possessed. For the next seven years he worked every day, including Sundays
and holidays. His power-tube division at Raytheon expanded from 15
employees to more than 5000 when the war ended. In addition to training
huge groups of men and women, he rode herd on the construction of new
buildings, argued for priorities on materials, fought for the latest
Largely because of his legendary skill and ingenuity, Spencer won for
Raytheon the contract to produce working models of combat radar equipment
for M.I.T.'s Radiation Laboratory, which had mobilized scientists from all
over the nation to work on the project. Next to the Manhattan Project, it
had the highest World War 11 military priority.
While the Battle of Britain was raging, the United States had received
a model of a microwave (high frequency) magnetron from the British.
Potentially, this was a weapon of incredible effectiveness, for the
magnetron is the power tube, which is the heart of a radar set. The
problem was how to mass-produce it. The vital tube had to be machined out
of solid copper with tolerances of less than ten thousands of an inch. It
took a master machinist a week to finish just one - and thousands were
needed to help the RAF against the Luftwaffe.
Spencer sweated night and day, driving himself and his workers, to
speed up production. When his first "maggies" were flown to
England, the RAF kill rate shot up. When we entered the war, 15 of
Spencer's radar sets, - sensitive enough to spot German U-boat periscopes,
were installed in U.S. bombers. They proved amazingly effective.
By this time Spencer had heckled and badgered production up to 100 a
day. He was still unsatisfied. On each trip through his plant he tried to
figure ways to speed things up. At last, he sweated out a solution.
Instead of carving the magnetron out of solid metal, Spencer, using a
machine any semi-skilled worker could operate, stamped thin cross-sections
of the tube out of copper and silver-solder. These were then piled
alternately, one atop the other, and cooked into, a single piece on an
ingenious conveyer-belt oven he designed. As a result of the new method,
production of magnetrons jumped to an astounding 2600 a day.
Next, Spencer invented a process which greatly increased the
magnetron's efficiency, and designed several major refinements which made
radar sets far more effective in combat. For his work he won the highest
honor, the Navy can give civilians: the Distinguished Public Service
Talking about this feat, an M.I.T. scientist explained to me how
Spencer operates: "The educated scientist knows many things won't
work. Percy doesn't know what can't be done. Like Edison, he will cut and
fit and try and throwaway and try again."
Since the war Spencer has kept up his incessant rounds of the plant,
poking his nose into everybody's business, cutting and fitting and
throwing away. He has continued to improve his magnetrons, has in- vented
microwave diathermy equipment with the cooperation of the Mayo Clinic. He
has kept his power-tube division of Raytheon in the black throughout
postwar economic gyrations. Every morning he gets to the plant before the
night shift knocks off at 7 a.m. He listens intently to any night-shift
workers who come to his office. "I let my people know I care,"
he explains. "When you work nights you think nobody cares what you
do. I know; I used to be there."
Spencer takes an almost aggressive interest in the people who work for
him. On one of his plant inspection trips he noticed that a new employee
wore a hat all the time, in doors and out. When Spencer found out the man
was bald, he said, "Come with me." At the office of Raytheon
president Charles Francis Adams, he flung open the door on the startled
Adams, who is as bald as his great-great-grandfather, the second President
of the United States, and his great-grandfather, the sixth U. S.
President. "See," Spencer bellowed, "he isn't ashamed of
not having hair!"
Dr. Vannevar Bush, who has known Percy since he was a young man, after
chuckling over several Spencer stories, warned me not to underestimate the
homespun Down- Easter. "He has the respect of every physicist in the
country, not only for his ingenuity but for what he has learned about
physics by absorbing it through his skin. He is not merely a good
experimenter and a good designer; he has become, in his own right, one of
the recognized individuals in a very difficult field."
Spencer's genius has received formal recognition as well. He is now a
Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the
Institute of Radio Engineers and holder of an honorary Doctor of Science
degree from the University of Massachusetts. Such honors have a special
meaning in today's complex scientific world. For Percy Spencer, the orphan
who never went beyond grammar school, has amply demonstrated that nothing
is beyond the grasp of a man who wants to know what is going on, and who
feels a sense of responsibility for doing something about it.
story - See the story of "Al" Spencer, Percy's brother, and his
"Million Dollar Invention"
This page last updated on July 16, 2014