Story Behind Inventors and Inventions Frozen Food

About the origins, history and story behind the scenes of the inventor and invention of frozen food.

Extraordinary Stories behind Ordinary Objects That Had to Be Invented by Someone

Invention: Frozen food

Inventors: James Harrison, Australia; Clarence Birdseye, U.S.

Year: 1873 and 1924

How Invented: Until the early 1900s, ice-cooled foods and drinks were a luxury available only to the wealthy. Unpredictable weather and unsophisticated methods of storage precluded a constant and steady supply. An Australian newspaper editor named James Harrison envisioned making a fortune if he could freeze and transport surplus mutton and beef to England, where meat prices were outlandishly high. Ice-making machines had been developed in the 1830s, but in order to keep foods frozen, a refrigeration machine had to be developed to ensure a stabilized temperature. Harrison patented his own ice machine in Australia in 1857. He continued his newspaper editing, was elected to Parliament, and in his spare time worked to develop a refrigerating machine. By 1873 he had perfected his method, and he arranged a special banquet to celebrate his invention. The meat he served had been completely frozen for six months, but not one dinner guest could tell that it wasn't freshly butchered. Later that year, his first cargo of beef sailed for London, but because the crew didn't understand how to operate the refrigeration machinery, the entire load was spoiled upon arrival. Harrison's reputation was ruined.

Other Australians were quick to capitalize on Harrison's idea, and by 1880 a wide variety of frozen foods were being sold at considerable profit. But some of these foods, when thawed, lacked the flavor and texture of fresh foods.

Clarence Birdseye was in Labrador between 1912 and 1915 on a U.S. government survey when he discovered his "deep freezing" method. He placed fresh vegetables in a bucket full of water and let them freeze solid. After his return to Massachusetts in 1924, he developed quick-freezing machinery and formed the General Seafoods Corporation. Commercial production began, and the first packaged frozen foods were soon available in markets. Five years later, in 1929, he sold out to the Postum Company for $22 million.

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