Clever inventions that came out of the cold
Great inventors look at the ordinary and see the extraordinary. They see freshly caught fish freezing in the Arctic air, and think of a new way to preserve food. They observe a banana boat being unloaded, and get an idea for a better way to move skiers up a mountain. They look at a wheat-harvesting machine, and imagine a revolutionary way to move snow.Skip to next paragraph
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But inventing something is rarely as simple as getting a great idea and patenting it. Many inventors endure years of struggle and failure before they succeed. Here are some of their stories:
Clarence Birdseye was a college dropout working as a naturalist for the United States government in the Arctic during the 1920s. While stationed in the far north, he noticed that freshly caught fish froze quickly in the extreme cold. And when the frozen fish was thawed and cooked much later, it still tasted fresh. The quick freezing was preventing the formation of large ice crystals, and that helped to preserve the fresh flavor of the fish.
When he returned to New York, Birdseye founded his own company, Birdseye Seafoods Inc., and started packaging frozen fish fillets to sell. In 1924, he invented a new process for packing fish or vegetables in cartons, then very quickly freezing the contents between two flat, refrigerated surfaces under high pressure.
Birdseye still had to figure out a way to get the frozen food to customers before it melted. Over the next decade, he created refrigerated display cases for grocery stores and leased refrigerated boxcars to transport the frozen foods by train. The frozen-food industry was born.
C.A. Swanson & Sons began producing frozen turkey and chicken pot pies in 1951. But in 1954, the company faced a crisis. Company executive Gerald Thomas had to figure out what to do with 520,000 pounds of unsold Thanksgiving turkeys. The birds had been crisscrossing the country on 10 refrigerated boxcars. There was no warehouse space to store them.
Then Mr. Thomas remembered the compartmentalized aluminum trays then being introduced on airplanes to serve meals. Two dozen women used ice-cream scoops to fill the trays with food for the first order of 5,000. The frozen "TV dinner" featured turkey, corn-bread stuffing and gravy, buttered peas, and sweet potatoes. It cost 98 cents. Swanson sold 10 million of its frozen dinners that year.
An interesting note: Since most people didn't own freezers at that time, most of the first frozen dinners were bought and cooked the same day.
When Frank Zamboni opened one of southern California's first ice-skating rinks in 1940, he found he had a problem. It wasn't easy keeping the sheet of ice smooth. First, a tractor had to pull a scraper along the ice. Then, three or four workers scooped up the shavings, sprayed water over the surface, squeegeed it clean, and let the water refreeze. It could take as long as an hour.
Mr. Zamboni, who had worked on cars and built refrigerators before opening his ice-skating rink, wondered whether one machine could do all those things at once.
For almost 10 years, he tried and failed to invent such a machine. Finally, in 1949, he built his first successful ice-resurfacing vehicle.