Two decades ago microwaves and radio-frequency radiation were seldom topics of heated discussion. Radio, television and radar were accepted manifestations of an advancing technological society. Today it is often difficult to say anything about microwaves and radio-frequency radiation without being caught in an ongoing debate between a health-minded public and a development-conscious industry.
The story of the development of the microwave debate -- the continuing controversy over the safety and use of both microwaves and radio-frequency radiation -- is in itself interesting. Its cast of characters includes citizen groups, crusading heros, international spies, maverick investigators and media specialists, in addition to the expected array of scientists and policymakers. Its episodes range from routine laboratory discoveries and tedious congressional hearings to delicate international negotiations and classified military research.
This book explores the history of microwaves (first called ultra-high frequency radio waves) and the questionable debate over possible hidden dangers. First brought to the attention of the public in 1942 and 1943, microwaves could not have been more welcomed. At the time the United States and its allies were engaged in a bitter war whose outcome seemed heavily dependent on the abilities of the opposing powers to put science and technology to work. Inventions that were new, scientific and technological were viewed as preservers of peace. By mid-1943, microwaves and radar were being billed as "our miracle ally."
The attitude toward microwave technology did not change until the late 1960s, when General Electric had to recall and modify 90,000 large color television sets because of possible radiation leaks. In 1973, Consumers Union reported to its readers that microwave ovens leaked radiation at levels "we can't be sure are harmless." Spokesmen from the microwave oven manufacturing community were and have continued to be critical of CU's report.
Later, in 1976, there was public disclosure of an incident that is referred to as the "Moscow signal." It seems that in 1952 the Kremlin moved the U.S. Embassy to a newly renovated apartment building. Shortly after the move routine radiation checks turned up unexpected readings. One sweep made in advance of Vice President Richard Nixon's trip to the Soviet Union in 1959 discovered high radiation levels in sections of the ambassador's apartments, including one of the rooms where Nixon was scheduled to sleep.
It turns out that the "Moscow signal" was a carefully manufactured beam of radiation aimed at the embassy and its personnel -- so the Soviet Union could see if there were any ill effects from the process. This section of the book reads like a spy novel.
Most of the technical terminology in the book is explained when introduced. For readers who have little prior knowledge of the microwave debate, there is a section that gives an easy-to-understand explanation of some terminology and abbreviations.