Clarence Birdseye

For people who thank the heavens every day for the convenience that is frozen foods, you may also want to thank the man behind the invention. His name is Clarence Frank Birdseye II and he just happens to be the founder of the modern frozen food industry. So every time you take that bag of frozen veggies or other frozen food from the icebox, you should give a little thanks to Birdseye as well. Without him, you would not be enjoying the convenience of frozen foods.

Who is Clarence Birdseye?

Clarence Birdseye was an American inventor, naturalist, and entrepreneur. He made one of the biggest innovations and contributions to the food industry when he found a way to flash-freeze food. He did this all on his own and he is the man responsible for the flash-freezing method that is still used up to this day. His is one invention that will stick around for ages which is proof of how useful it is.


His Early Years

Clarence Birdseye was born on December 9, 1886 in Brooklyn, NY. His parents were Ada Jane Underwood and Clarence Frank Birdseye I. he was the 6th of 9 other kids. He was a student at Amherst College but only for a brief amount of time as he dropped out around the year 1908 although the exact date is unclear. It wasn’t because he was mentally slow by any means but he and his family really did not have the funds for college. He moved out west to work for the USDA.

He also began a career working as a taxidermist. He got a job in Arizona and New Mexico and his title was “assistant naturalist”. This job required him to kill coyotes. He also worked with entomologist Willard Von Orsdel King in 1910 and 1911. On the job, Birdseye would catch about several hundred small mammals and King would remove ticks from them for research purposes. This was how he found out that ticks were the cause of the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

He moved on to another field assignment in 1912 and kept the spot until 1915. This job took him to Labrador in Canada (then known as Dominion of Newfoundland). This was where he really developed an interest in preserving and freezing food (most especially fast freezing). He had some dealings with the Inuit and they taught him how to ice fish underneath very thick ice layers. Given the -40C weather, he found that the fish was iced almost in an instant and tasted fresh when thawed. He thought of the frozen food served in New York and knew that they were of poor quality compared to the frozen fish enjoyed by folks in Labrador and got the idea of applying his new found knowledge in starting a lucrative business. His records from that time period are held in the Special Collections section in Amherst College.

His Flash-freezing Method

Back in the day, the freezing method they used was commonly performed at higher temperatures which and this was how freezing was brought about. However, freezing was done at a slower rate which meant that ice crystals were given time to grow. It is now common knowledge that using the fast freezing method results in smaller ice crystals which means that less damage is brought to the tissues of the food. When using the slow freezing methods on food, fluids leak from the cells and this causes tissues to be damaged by the crystals. This is why food that is frozen using the slow freezing method often has a mushy or dry feel to it. Birdseye changed all that and saved the people from mushy and dry textured food for the years to come.

In the year 1922, he began a series of fish-freezing studies at the Clothel Refrigerating Company. He established his own company soon after and called it Birdseye Seafoods Inc. what they did was they froze fish fillets using chilled air that was as cold as -43C. Two years later, in 1924, his company filed bankruptcy as there was a lack of consumer interest in their product but that did not stop him. In that same year, he came up with a brand new process that made for commercially viable quick-freezing which involved packing fish inside cartons then putting them between two refrigerated surfaces under pressure to free the food. With this new invention he also started a new company which he called General Seafood Corporation.

Development of His Invention

In the year 1925, his new company moved to Gloucester in Massachusetts where he made use of his new invention. He called it the double belt freezer where brine was used to chill a couple of stainless steel belts that carried packaged fish so they froze so much more quickly. He applied for a patent for his invention and it was given the US Patent #1,773,079 and this marked the very beginning of a flourishing frozen foods industry.

He was a man of vision so he created other machines and took out patents on them as well. These new machines he patented cooled foods even more quickly so that only the smallest ice crystals formed in the food and cell membranes did not endure any damage. In 1927, he decided to extend the process past fish and started flash-freezing other food items as well. That year, they also froze vegetables, chicken, meat, and fruits.

Birdseye didn’t keep the company but sold it to Goldman Sachs and Postum Company instead. Together with the patents, he got paid around $22 million which was a massive amount at that time. His company was eventually given the name General Foods Corp. and that founded the Birds Eye Frozen Food Company. Clarence Birdseye wasn’t completely out of the picture since he still worked for the company and never really stopped coming up with newer and better frozen food technology.

His Death

He died on 7 October 1956 at the Gramercy Park Hotel at 69. His cause of death was a heart attack. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea just off the area in Gloucester in MA.