The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame: Zojirushi Micom Electric Rice Cooker/Warmer
The Zojirushi was among the first appliances to use fuzzy logic, and made it almost impossible to ruin a pot of rice
The Twonky as Rice Cooker? Not quite, but the Zojirushi’s fuzzy-logic software enabled it to overcome a couple of human foibles, such as adding too much water to the rice.Photo: Zojirushi
People have been cooking rice for at least 12,000 years. And yet it was only 35 years ago that Zojirushi figured out how to make the process foolproof.
Of course, there were some notable milestones leading up to that achievement. The first consumer-oriented rice cooker was introduced by Mitsubishi in 1945. It was the first of a slew of electric cookers that used heating coils to steam rice; with these, operators had to monitor the device and turn it off when the rice was done. Toshiba introduced the first automated rice cooker in 1956. It relied on a relatively simple bimetallic switch—when all the water had been absorbed, the temperature of the metal cooking vessel would quickly rise, triggering the switch, which turned the unit off.
Zojirushi claims to have been the first to include a feature that would keep cooked rice warm for hours. Introduced in 1965, that model relied on semiconductors to accomplish the trick. Prior to that, Zojirushi was best known for making vacuum bottles.
Then, 18 years later, came the big breakthrough. In 1983 Zojirushi introduced a rice cooker that was among the first consumer-oriented products to rely on fuzzy logic. Oddly, the company doesn’t use the term in its marketing, preferring instead to refer to the microcomputer (which it calls a “Micom”) that implements the fuzzy logic. Three and a half decades later, Zojirushi still considers everything having to do with the development of this rice cooker a trade secret and refuses to discuss any of it.
Why did the world need to apply a form of multivalued logic to the cooking of rice? Because it solved the two big remaining problems with rice cookers: 1) different varietals of rice have different cook times, and 2) cooks. Some rice cookers have different settings for white rice and for brown rice, for example. The Zojirushi fuzzy-logic product takes into account what type of rice it is cooking, and cooks it perfectly. As for cooks? A pot of rice requires only rice and water, and yet people occasionally get the proportions wrong. Provided the users aren’t too far off with their measurements, a fuzzy-logic rice cooker will simply adjust and render perfectly cooked rice despite the human error.
Right around the same time that fuzzy logic was applied to rice cookers, manufacturers also switched to induction heating, which can be controlled more precisely than heating coils. The combination of fuzzy logic and induction heating led to rice-cooking perfection. Or as close to it as we are going to get until the singularity gives us rice cookers with genius-level intelligence.
Today, the rice cooker is the only electronic kitchen gadget ever invented that tens of millions of cooks around the world use almost daily. There are fuzzy-logic rice cookers from Tatung, Tiger Corp., Panasonic, and others. Many are available for under US $100. Zojirushi, the pioneer, still commands prices well above $100 for most of its models.