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The History of Microwave Popcorn

Popcorn is a surprisingly ancient snack that dates back to ancient Peru nearly 7,000 years ago, according to evidence found at a prehistoric settlement. Ancient Peruvians likely roasted corn cobs above a fire until the kernels popped and there is evidence that they even developed a rudimentary popcorn popper around 300 AD. But the first microwave popcorn didn’t come around until much later. Surprisingly, popcorn was first microwaved as part of a lab experiment conducted by researcher Percy Spencer, who was working on a radar system during World War II when he realized that the magnetron he was using had melted the chocolate bar in his pocket. Soon after, he experimented with the technology he had stumbled upon by popping a handful of corn kernels using the magnetron. This marked the very first time that popcorn was popped using microwave technology. Interestingly, Spencer later came up with a method for popping popcorn that involved popping the kernels without first removing them from the cob, but it didn’t catch on. Still, companies and individuals continued to experiment. (Spencer himself went on to earn a patent for inventing the first microwave oven while working for his employer, Raytheon, and the company rolled out the first commercially available microwave, the Radarange, in 1947.) The earliest popping bag designed for use in a microwave was patented in 1978. Around that same time, Pillsbury began selling microwave popcorn packages in refrigerated vending machines and the freezer section of the grocery store. (These early products reportedly used real dairy, making refrigerator or freezer storage a necessity.) Gen X consumers may recall the rectangular cardboard popping pads that were packaged with these products — if it was not used, the kernels wouldn’t pop correctly. In 1981, Golden Valley Microwave Foods created Act I (the predecessor to Act II microwave popcorn) and began selling it in refrigerated vending machines and the freezer section, too. Then in 1984, that same company successfully created a shelf-stable recipe and a new kind of popcorn bag. The company debuted their new product under a new name, Act II. The introduction of Act II marked the first time that microwave popcorn could be stored in the pantry and easily popped in any standard microwave. In the late 1990s, Golden Valley Microwave Foods was acquired by Conagra Foods (the brand also owns other popular popcorn brands like Orville Redenbacher's and Boom Chicka Pop.) Other brands have cropped up over the years and grocery store shelves now typically offer a wide selection of microwave popcorn brands and flavors. Today, microwave popcorn continues to be a beloved snack and is considered a staple pantry item in many households all over the world, particularly in North America.

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