It’s because of Birdseye that Americans expect peach pie in winter, fish fillets in Kansas and TV dinners in a hurry. And it is because of him that whole communities in America left farmlands for urban life.
Birdseye was no scientist or laboratory intellectual. Like Ford, Edison and Jobs, he had no college degree; like them, he depended largely on native intelligence and an irrepressible spirit of can-do. In “Birdseye,” Mark Kurlansky’s brisk account of the man’s galvanic trajectory, we are reminded that American ingenuity has often relied less on a classroom than on insatiable curiosity and a well-lit garage.
Kurlansky is best known for epic portraits of small-scale subjects, among them “Salt,”
“Cod” and “The Basque History of the World.” He brings a nimble, no-frills journalism to these tasks, and the result is a series of eye-opening books on worlds we might otherwise never see. “Salt” becomes a history of humankind, complete with explorers and revolutionaries. “Cod” is a rollicking tale of adventure, with a fish as its celebrated star. “The Basque History” ends up being a paean to a highly inventive people: Europe’s earliest explorers, Spain’s first bankers, a race defined by curiosity, ingenuity and grit.
Likewise, “Birdseye” turns out to be less a biography than a glimpse into an exuberantly inventive time in America. Little is known about Birdseye’s personal life, and Kurlansky is quick to admit it. But the impact of the man’s inventions is on full view here: the whaling harpoon, the dipping of livestock to control ticks, the science of crystallization and cryonics, innovations in food packaging, advances in refrigeration, the birth of the sunlamp, the production of dried edibles, the papermaking revolution. We see a tireless tinkerer, a restless mind, a quintessentially American inventor, driven by two questions about the world around him: Why? and Why not?
He was born in the age of the steamboat and died in the age of the satellite. In Kurlansky’s hands, the arc of Birdseye’s life, which spanned from 1886 to 1956, is a history of the American imagination. Birdseye came into the world alongside the telephone, the phonograph and the light bulb, and then rode to manhood on a wave of ingenuity. By the time he was 10, Americans had invented fountain pens, cash registers, Coca-Cola, washing machines, escalators, contact lenses and automobiles. By the time he was 20, factories were churning out a whole host of American products and reaping the riches of the industrial age.