The Man Who Gave America a Taste Of the Future

In a 1999 photo, Gerry Thomas shows off an updated version of his invention. Thomas died Monday at age 83.
In a 1999 photo, Gerry Thomas shows off an updated version of his invention. Thomas died Monday at age 83. (By Mike Fiala -- Associated Press)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005

Gerald E. Thomas had one little idea that changed the sociology of the American family, encouraged the feminist movement, ignited the obesity epidemic and introduced countless Americans to something called Salisbury steak. And all for less than a dollar.

Thomas, who died this week at the age of 83, didn't invent the TV dinner (the U.S. Army and later an airline "food service" company had the same concept before), but he did invent the TV Dinner, C.A. Swanson & Sons' hugely popular meal-ready-to-heat.

TV Dinners were never any good, but they were always cool. Long before instant meals got snooty -- all those Le Menus and Lean Cuisines -- you could count on TV Dinners to taste nothing like Mom's own. Something about the processing and cooking and freezing of all those unlike foods -- fried chicken, succotash and peas and cubed carrots, mashed potatoes -- made serving it and eating it a challenge. Despite what seemed like hours of heating, which produced a table-scorching metal ingot upon removal from the oven, no one could ever quite get all the various foods to stay at the same temperature. While the apple cobbler in the little center compartment would sear the roof of your mouth, half the fried chicken would remain in permafrost, and the brown gravy would be transformed into crusty black carbon.

In this way, TV Dinners prepared us for airline food, microwave cooking, chicken nuggets, salads-in-a-cup and all the other modern-miracle simulations of actual food.

None of that mattered back when, of course. If you are of a certain age, you remember your first encounter with a TV Dinner almost as an encounter with the modern world itself. The very concept -- a self-contained meal requiring nothing more than defrosting and heating -- seemed an extraordinary triumph of the Atomic Age, a tangible example of the future promised by 1950s industrial films and "The Jetsons" (which you could watch while eating your dinner). If your dinner came like this today, you imagined, then tomorrow it would come in a pill. Next, your jet pack could deliver you to school.

The TV Dinner, like the birth control pill, fostered its own revolution in personal relations, and not always in a good way. Just as cheap, reliable and available birth control freed women (and men) from a profound consequence of sex, TV Dinners created another (albeit more prosaic) kind of "freedom" -- relief from hours spent in the kitchen. Women could work outside the home, because food processing technology had foreshortened some of their traditional responsibilities. (How many men and children arrived home at night to find a handwritten note reading, "Left dinner in the freezer. Just warm it up. Love, Mom"?)

Thanks to such "convenience," more moms had more time on their hands, and fewer were late to their consciousness-raising meetings. Moms left TV Dinners behind, and Dads cooked them, and this had a way of adding to the popular mythology of male culinary ineptitude. The meal was never really served until Dad had burned his hands on it and screamed profanities at it.

And yet the TV Dinner preceded something darker still in family dynamics. Thanks to the TV Dinner (and its accessory, the TV tray), the household center of gravity moved from the dining room to the "family room" or den, or wherever the television was regally ensconced. Every member of the family could now sit simultaneously on the sofa, eat dinner and watch a program. In addition to encouraging sloth, the family TV meal discouraged interaction. Mealtime conversation ceased (or was slipped in during commercials), and a disastrous sort of quietude prevailed. At least this was better than what followed. Soon, a second TV set arrived in the house, and the "family dinner" carried on in two locations. You could easily imagine an anti-advertisement for the TV Dinner: "Honey, we never talk anymore . . . thanks to Swanson's!"

A Swanson salesman, Thomas thought he had a clever way to get rid of 520,000 pounds of unsold turkeys following the post-Thanksgiving lull of 1952. On one of his sales calls, Thomas noticed that his customer was shipping boxes of foil-wrapped aluminum trays to Pan American Airlines, which was experimenting with ways to serve hot meals to its passengers. On his flight home, Thomas designed his own three-segment version of the tray, and talked the Swanson brothers into setting up an assembly line (two dozen women armed with ice cream scoops) to plop turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and peas into 8,000 trays.

The next year, Swanson sold more than 10 million of them at 98 cents each.

Thomas, and Swanson, had unknowingly caught several converging waves. In 1953, more married women and married women with young children were employed outside the home than in any year in American history, including during World War II (part of a trend that has not abated since). Thus, the need for speed in the kitchen.

But the real breakthrough was the name Thomas bestowed on his brainchild. At the time, just 10 percent of households had TV sets, though it's probable that the other 90 percent wanted one. In 1998, upon being inducted into the Frozen Food Hall of Fame (if you go, check out the fabulous Flavorless Peas exhibit!), Thomas said one of his motivations was to link eating and TV. "Anything that was connected with TV was like anything connected today with . . . personal computers," he said. "That's cool. You're with it if you're into that. That's what TV was." Swanson cleverly designed the package to look like a TV screen.

One of the original aluminum trays that Thomas designed now belongs to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. But his most enduring legacy may be his original coinage. By 1962, TV was so pervasive, and the product so well established, that Swanson dropped the name TV Dinner altogether. It hoped to induce consumers to eat reheated meals any time of the day. And it did -- the frozen-foods aisle of the average supermarket is clogged with heat 'n' serve foods for breakfast, lunch and snack time.

Even now, these are known by the name Thomas gave them, "TV dinners." Someday, in that distant Jetsonian future, we may still be eating something called that, too.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company