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9 Chilly Facts About Frozen Food Pioneer Clarence Birdseye

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Whenever you grab a frozen dinner for a quick, prep-free meal, you're in some debt to Clarence "Bob" Birdseye (1886–1956). The inventor was the pioneer of the flash-freeze method, which turned the frozen food industry into a billion-dollar enterprise. Check out some facts on Birdseye's life that reveal his genius as a food innovator and why we came close to enjoying frozen alligator.

1. HE WAS A FUR TRADER.

Like many geniuses, Birdseye didn't have his life entirely mapped out. Hoping to become a biologist, he enrolled at Amherst College in 1910 but couldn't complete his studies because tuition was too expensive. Instead, he became a field naturalist for the U.S. Biological Survey. In 1912, he joined a six-week medical mission in Labrador, Canada. There, in his spare time, he worked in fur trading. This experience proved be a crucial turning point in Birdseye's life.

2. HE WAS INSPIRED BY THE INUIT.

While on the trip, Birdseye observed Inuit performing their own version of flash-freezing. After catching fish, they would use a careful balance of ice and environmental conditions to instantly freeze their food without destroying it. (The air was so cold—sometimes as low as -45°F—that caught fish would essentially freeze in mid-air.) When the fish thawed, Birdseye was delighted to find that it still tasted good. The difference was that foods frozen slowly formed cell- and flavor-destroying ice crystals, while quick-frozen (or "flash-frozen") foods did not. Thinking he could adapt the same principles to other foods like vegetables, Birdseye returned to the States in 1917 with the ambition of developing a quick-freeze machine. By 1923 he was experimenting with various methods in his kitchen in the suburbs of New York City. One involved rabbit meat, candy boxes, and dry ice.

3. HE DEVELOPED TWO METHODS FOR QUICK-FREEZING.

Eager to replicate the Inuit way for mass production, Birdseye came up with two novel methods for quick-freezing foods. Using calcium chloride, Birdseye could chill metal belts to -45°F and press the food between them, speeding up the freezing process. He then improved this process by using hollow metal plates filled with an ammonia-based refrigerant. When squeezed between these plates, meat and vegetables could be frozen in 30 to 90 minutes. 

4. PEOPLE WERE WARY OF FROZEN FISH.

While his ingenuity would ultimately prove successful, at first people were highly suspicious of frozen seafood. Consumers had no basis for comparison and didn't know what to expect when it came to taste; railroads and store owners, meanwhile, were worried they might be held liable if thawed food made people sick. But there was enough potential that Birdseye sold his company, General Seafood Corporation, to Postum in 1929. (Postum later changed its name to General Foods.)

5. HE SPEARHEADED THE ENTIRE FROZEN FOOD INDUSTRY.

Before Birdseye's patented methods, no one really stored or ate frozen foods (then called “frosted foods”) owing to their terrible taste—it was so noxious that New York State even banned using it to feed prisoners. In order to get the general public to accept frozen foods as a viable market product, Birdseye—who was still working for General Foods after the sale—needed to develop packaging, freezer cases, and transportation methods. It was an arduous process involving test markets and large-scale salesmanship, but by 1944, refrigerated boxcars were carrying Birdseye (labeled Birds Eye) products to stores across the country, and customers were bringing them home to store in their newly bought home freezers.

6. HE TRIED FREEZING EVERYTHING. EVEN ALLIGATORS.

Birdseye was virtually obsessed with finding the potential limits to the food-freezing process. Toiling at his factory in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Birdseye experimented with almost anything he could get his hands on. In addition to fish, meats, and vegetables, he also tried freezing porpoise, whale, shark, and an alligator.

7. HE REINVENTED THE PEA.

While he was busy amassing his frozen food empire, Birdseye actually had a material effect on one food's appearance. By blanching green peas before freezing them, Birdseye noticed that the vegetable would turn a vibrant green. The colorful pea soon became a staple of the frozen vegetable market.

8. HE ALSO CHANGED THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY.

Birdseye was constantly on the lookout for ways to perfect his flash-freezing production process. Acknowledging that frozen food packages would develop condensation, he looked toward the French invention, Cellophane, to wrap his fish. But the packaging would disintegrate once it got wet. Birdseye convinced Cellophane's manufacturer, DuPont, to create a moisture-proof version. He was its only customer until cigar and cigarette companies realized that the material would keep their products dry.

9. HE WAS BUSY UNTIL THE END.

Birdseye died in 1956 at the age of 69, but age hadn't slowed his ambition. At the time of his death, he was hoping to perfect a process by which sugar cane could be turned into pulp for paper. Today, his Birds Eye products continue to populate virtually every frozen food section of every supermarket in the country.

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The Surprising Reason Why Pen Caps Have Tiny Holes at the Top
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iStock

If you’re an avid pen chewer, or even just a diehard fan of writing by hand, you’re probably well acquainted with the small hole that tops off most ballpoint pen caps, particularly those classic Bic Cristal pens. The reason it’s there has nothing to do with pen function, it turns out. As Science Alert recently reported, it’s actually designed to counter human carelessness.

Though it’s arguably unwise—not to mention unhygienic—to chomp or suck on a plastic pen cap all day, plenty of people do it, especially kids. And inevitably, that means some people end up swallowing their pen caps. Companies like Bic know this well—so they make pen caps that won’t impede breathing if they’re accidentally swallowed.

This isn’t only a Bic requirement, though the company’s Cristal pens do have particularly obvious holes. The International Organization for Standardization, a federation that sets industrial standards for 161 countries, requires it. ISO 11540 specifies that if pens must have caps, they should be designed to reduce the risk of asphyxiation if they’re swallowed.

It applies to writing instruments “which in normal or foreseeable circumstances are likely to be used by children up to the age of 14 years.” Fancy fountain pens and other writing instruments that are clearly designed for adult use don’t need to have holes in them, nor do caps that are large enough that you can’t swallow them. Any pen that could conceivably make its way into the hands of a child needs to have an air hole in the cap that provides a minimum flow of 8 liters (about 2 gallons) of air per minute, according to the standard [PDF].

Pen cap inhalation is a real danger, albeit a rare one, especially for primary school kids. A 2012 study [PDF] reported that pen caps account for somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of “foreign body aspiration,” the official term for inhaling something you’re not supposed to. Another study found that of 1280 kids (ages 6 to 14) treated between 1997 and 2007 for foreign body inhalation in Beijing, 34 had inhaled pen caps.

But the standards help keep kids alive. In that Beijing study, none of the 34 kids died, and the caps were successfully removed by doctors. That wasn’t always the case. In the UK, nine children asphyxiated due to swallowing pen caps between 1970 and 1984. After the UK adopted the international standard for air holes in pen caps, the number of deaths dropped precipitously [PDF]. Unfortunately, it’s not foolproof; in 2007, a 13-year-old in the UK died after accidentally swallowing his pen cap.

Even if you can still breathe through that little air hole, getting a smooth plastic pen cap out of your throat is no easy task for doctors. The graspers they normally use to take foreign bodies out of airways don’t always work, as that 2012 case report found, and hospitals sometimes have to employ different tools to get the stubbornly slippery caps out (in that study, they used a catheter that could work through the hole in the cap, then inflated a small balloon at the end of the catheter to pull the cap out). The procedure doesn’t exactly sound pleasant. So maybe resist the urge to put your pen cap in your mouth.

[h/t Science Alert]

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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