He Saved Navy Fliers from Spam

Long before Swanson’s TV dinner, there was the Maxson Sky Plate

Swanson's frozen meals first appeared in 1954. Hint: Placing the TV dinner in a decorative basket is not going to help.

While most people think of Swanson’s when they think of frozen dinners, the idea originated with Maxson Food Systems, Inc. New York inventor William Maxson wasn’t thinking of bachelors or busy working moms, though; he was thinking of airline passengers. As the New York Times reported on September 19, 1946, Maxson’s commercially marketed “Strato Meal” was “the same thing as Sky Plate, 500,000 of which have been served all over the world on planes of the Naval Air Transport Service and to passengers of Pan American Airways.” The Strato Meal, according to the Times, was a complete dinner-on-a-plate that included “a single serving of meat and vegetable…arranged on a tri-partitioned, paper-fiber container.”

The New Yorker ran a profile on Maxson in August 1945: He “has been a grandfather for five months, closely resembles Henry VIII, and is left-handed.” The article went on to mention Maxson’s other inventions, which included a multiple machine-gun mount used by the Army, and “an aerial-navigation instrument too complicated to describe in these pages.”

Ready to eat after 15 minutes in Maxson's specially designed oven. Originally appeared in the New York Times, April 11, 1945.

The original Sky Plates were “defrozen” in something called “Maxson’s Whirlwind,” which used a 24-volt D.C. motor, standard in aircraft of the time. The unit could heat six plates, although Maxson had created a device that could heat 120 at a time for a cargo ship for the War Shipping Administration.

The New Yorker article noted that Maxson got the idea of frozen dinners when he grew a surplus of cauliflower. “He cooked and froze a little (for some reason) and upon tasting it a year later (for some reason) found that it was delicious. Now he never touches fresh food at home except for an occasional salad. His dinner guests are taken into his freezer and allowed to pick out just what they feel they’d like; one may take egg foo-young, another oyster stew, another curried chicken, and so on. None of this nonsense of everybody at the table eating the same thing.”

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