Book Notes: Biography of Clarence Birdseye
"Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man," by Mark Kurlansky. Doubleday, New York, 2012. 251 pages. $25.95
The first thing I see when I open Mark Kurlansky’s entertaining new biography, “Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man,” is a portrait of Clarence Frank Birdseye II sitting at his desk in September 1943. By the end of the book you have to wonder when he ever sat down. The small, wiry genius didn’t stop till his heart gave out.
Mark Kurlansky does a great job bringing Birdseye to life. He had limited material to work with, a lot of it erroneous. For one thing, Birdseye’s accomplishments were so many and so innovative that he took on mythological attributes over time, inspiring some tall tales in the process. Through interviews, examination of official records and the discovery of a treasure trove of Birdseye’s letters, what Kurlansky does is prove that the man is greater than the myth.
The city of Gloucester, Mass., where Birdseye worked and built his grand home on Eastern Point, already knows and appreciates the man who gave many work during the Great Depression. It was in Gloucester that Birdseye devised the methods for fast-freezing fish and other foods that would finally deliver the wealth that had eluded him.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1886, Birdseye is characterized by Kurlansky as a 19th-century man, more mechanically than technologically oriented, with a curiosity that fueled relentless problem solving. He believed that everything could be improved upon. Whatever interested him, whether it was gardening or raising foxes or preserving fresh fish, could become the recipient of his unparalleled energies.
Birdseye lived in an era of world-changing inventions and he was one of the world changers who, because he was ahead of his time, had to find ways to enable the world to use what he made.
He came from a well-to-do, connected family that hit hard times. He left college when he could no longer afford the tuition and set off on a life of extreme adventure. One of his life-threatening jobs was to collect ticks for a medical project on the deadly Rocky Mountain spotted fever. By then he’d learned a lot about hunting (a passion) and animals. He spent the days on horseback in the Montana Bitterroot canyons, rifle in hand.
Next Birdseye developed a fox farming business — the Hammond and Birdseye Fur Company — in Labrador. Among his investors was Harris Hammond, brother of the inventor John Jays Hammond Jr., who also lived and worked in Gloucester.
“Birdseye traveled all over Labrador, often for days at a time, by dogsled. For instance, on January 10, 1913, he averaged almost 10 miles an hour, covering 65 miles in six and a half hours, which is the total amount of daylight in Labrador at that time of year.” He was gone for three to six weeks at a time, writes Kurlansky.
Hammond was a “foodie” who relished a vast variety of foods. His love of hunting was equal to his love of cooking and consuming what he bagged. It was in Labrador that he articulated what people already knew: the faster (and colder) animal flesh froze, the smaller the ice crystals and the less the damage to the flesh. Slower freezing meant that the larger crystals broke up and damaged the meat.
It would take more than a decade before Birdseye could put to use what he knew. In the summer of 1925 he settled at 1 Beach Road, near Gloucester’s Back Shore. He found investors, formed the General Seafoods Corp., and set about inventing and developing machinery to freeze and package fish. Patent #1,773,079 began the frozen food industry, writes Kurlansky.
He continued to improve upon the freezing system but he had many roadblocks to confront, beginning with people’s poor perceptions of frozen food. He stopped calling it frozen and used the word “frosted” instead. Unions didn’t like the idea, the canning industry feared it, railroads didn’t want the responsibility of keeping food frozen in transit, and commercial and home freezers didn’t really exist. “There was not even a strong, transparent, waterproof wrapping material available,” writes Kurlansky.
In 1929, just before the onset of the Depression, C.W. bought out Birdseye for $23.5 million. Most of that was for the patents. Birdseye made about $1 million and went about building his grand home on Eastern Point. He continued to work for the organization at a salary of $50,000 a year. By then he was only in his mid-40s.
Birdseye never stopped inventing things. In 1935 he patented a reflecting electric light bulb, which Kurlansky says was greatly successful. He invented more intensely glowing filaments and heat lamps for keeping food warm, as well.
He was also an avid, relentless hunter who did not heed rules about limits or considerations of humane killing. He thought big agri-business was the way to go and never gave much thought to over-fishing. Nonetheless, he was a well-liked, gregarious man whose curiosity and enthusiasm inspired America and supported Gloucester.
Birdseye suffered angina and, for a while, he heeded his doctor’s advice and slowed down a bit. That meant no riding horses. He took up gardening with the same vigor he gave to his other projects. He continued to travel, hunt and invent. He was in his apartment in New York City, near Gramercy Park, when he died of heart failure at the age of 69. He may have worn himself out, but his productivity knew no bounds and surpassed most mortals.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or read her blog at www.freefallrae.blogspot.com or follow her @RaeAF.