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Clarence Frank Birdseye II
December 9, 1886
|Died||October 7, 1956 (aged 69)|
|Known for||Frozen food|
|Parent(s)||Clarence Frank Birdseye I|
Ada Jane Underwood
Clarence Birdseye was the sixth of nine children of Clarence Frank Birdseye, a lawyer in an insurance firm, and Ada Jane Underwood. His first years were spent in Brooklyn, New York, where his family owned a townhouse in Cobble Hill. From childhood, Birdseye was obsessed with natural science and with taxidermy, which he taught himself by correspondence. At the age of eleven he advertised his courses in the subject. When he was fourteen, the family moved to the suburb of Montclair, New Jersey, where Birdseye graduated from Montclair High School. He matriculated at Amherst College, where his father and elder brother had earned degrees. There he excelled at science, although an average student in other subjects. His obsession with collecting insects led his college classmates to nickname him "Bugs". This was subsequently changed to "Bob". Birdseye biographer Mark Kurlansky notes that after 1906 he was never again referred to as Clarence. In the summer after his freshman year, Birdseye worked for the United States Department of Agriculture in New Mexico and Arizona as an "assistant naturalist", at a time when the agency was concerned with helping farmers and ranchers get rid of predators, chiefly coyotes.
In 1908, the Birdseye family experienced a financial crisis "of an unclear nature," resulting in Birdseye's having to withdraw from college after completing only two years. Nine years later, in 1917, Birdseye's father and elder brother Kellogg were charged with and convicted of a scheme to defraud the firm for which they worked and were sentenced to prison. It is not known whether this event was connected to the difficulties that had forced Birdseye to leave Amherst.
After leaving college, Birdseye was once again hired by the United States Agriculture Department, this time for a project surveying animals in the American West. He also worked with entomologist Willard Van Orsdel King (1888-1970) in Montana, where, in 1910 and 1911, he captured several hundred small mammals from which King removed several thousand ticks for research, isolating them as the cause of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a breakthrough. Birdseye's next field assignment, intermittently from 1912 to 1915, was in Labrador in the Dominion of Newfoundland (now part of Canada), where he became further interested in food preservation by freezing, especially fast freezing. He purchased land at Muddy Bay, where he built a ranch for raising foxes. He was taught by the Inuit how to ice fish under very thick ice. In -40 °C weather, he discovered that the fish he caught froze almost instantly, and when thawed, tasted fresh. He recognized immediately that the frozen seafood sold in New York was of lower quality than the frozen fish of Labrador. He saw that this knowledge would be lucrative. His journals from this period, which meticulously record these observations, are held in the Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College.
Conventional freezing methods of the time were commonly done at higher temperatures, thus the freezing occurred much more slowly, giving ice crystals more time to grow. It is now known that fast freezing produces smaller ice crystals, which cause less damage to the tissue structure. When 'slow' frozen foods thaw, cellular fluids leak from the ice crystal-damaged tissue, giving the resulting food a mushy or dry consistency upon preparation. Birdseye solved this problem.
In 1922, Birdseye conducted fish-freezing experiments at the Clothel Refrigerating Company, and then established his own company, Birdseye Seafoods Inc., to freeze fish fillets with chilled air at -43 °C (-45 °F). In 1924, his company went bankrupt for lack of consumer interest in the product. That same year, he developed an entirely new process for commercially viable quick-freezing: packing fish in cartons, then freezing the contents between two refrigerated surfaces under pressure. Birdseye created General Seafood Corporation to promote this method.
In 1925, General Seafood Corporation moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts. There it employed Birdseye's newest invention, the double belt freezer, in which cold brine chilled a pair of stainless steel belts carrying packaged fish, freezing the fish quickly. His invention was issued US Patent #1,773,079, marking the beginning of today's frozen foods industry. Birdseye patented other machinery which cooled even more quickly. In 1927, he extended the process to quick-freezing meat, poultry, fruit, and vegetables.
In 1929, Birdseye sold his company and patents for $22 million (approximately $330 million in 2019 dollars) to Goldman Sachs and the Postum Company, which eventually became General Foods Corporation, which founded the Birds Eye Frozen Food Company. Birdseye continued to work with the company, further developing frozen food technology. In 1930, the company began sales experiments in 18 retail stores around Springfield, Massachusetts, to test consumer acceptance of quick-frozen foods. The initial product line featured 26 items, including 18 cuts of frozen meat, spinach and peas, a variety of fruits and berries, blue point oysters, and fish fillets. Consumers liked the new products, and today this is considered the birth of retail frozen foods. The "Birds Eye" name remains a leading frozen-food brand. Birdseye was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.
Clarence Birdseye, the inventor of a process for quick freezing foods, that made his name a household word in the United States, died Sunday night of a heart ailment in his residence at the Gramercy Park Hotel. He was 69 years old.