Inventor of the TV dinner dies at age 83

July 22, 2005, as reported by Dinner time in the 1950s will forever be portrayed one of two ways: smiling mom in apron happily serving mashed potatoes to family of four or teenager with freshly heated TV dinner on TV table sprawled in front of the Ed Sullivan Show.

We can thank the late Gerry Thomas for image number two.

Gerry Thomas, the US salesman credited with the invention of the TV dinner has died of cancer at age 83, the BBC reported. The CA Swanson and Sons marketing executive dreamt up the new meal format to handle the poultry unsold after the Thanksgiving holiday. An instant hit the new invention allowed families to combine meal time with the new 1950s hobby - watching television.

While traveling on business, Thomas spotted a metal tray being tested out for in-flight hot dinners, and the idea of pre-packaged frozen dinners was born.

"It was just a single compartment tray with foil," he recalled in a 1999 interview with news agency AP. "I asked if I could borrow it and stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat."

The first Swanson TV Dinner - made up of three sections containing turkey with cornbread dressing and gravy, sweet potatoes and buttered peas - went on sale in 1953 priced at 98 cents.

Ten million of the cartons, innovatively packaged to look like a TV screen complete with knobs, disappeared from US shop shelves in 10 months, as viewers settled down to munch as they watched number one show I Love Lucy.

The TV dinner's runaway success led to a pay rise for Mr. Thomas, booming business for Swanson and a culinary trend of convenience which shows little sign of falling from favor.

However, Mr. Thomas' invention is not remembered fondly by all.

"He has a lot to answer for," UK child psychologist and parenting expert Doctor Pat Spungin told the BBC News website. "It's a terrible invention as far as family life is concerned."

Dr Spungin - who has set up the Back to the Table campaign in the UK to encourage families to eat home-cooked meals together - says the problem is that the TV dinner destroys conversation.

"Even if you have seven people together eating TV dinners, they are eating in a line and that's not conducive to communication," Dr Spungin said.

"Eating together has always been a mark of family life. You also eat together as a sign of hospitality and welcome.

"[The TV dinner] is a big problem in the UK and America but I think in countries with a stronger food/family tradition, like Italy and Spain, the concept of the TV dinner is probably regarded with horror."

Even in its early days, the TV dinner was not universally well received.

Thomas received "hate mail from men who wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mothers did", he said.

But Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, believes it is unfair to blame Mr. Thomas for the decline of home-cooked food.

The advent of the TV dinner coincided with a changing society where women were increasingly going to work and had less time to cook, he told AP.

"Some people claim the TV dinner was the first step toward breaking up the American family because it made it possible for everybody to eat in a 'modular' way," he said.

"That was going to happen anyway. The redefinition of the American family was going on anyway."

It was not until the 1990s that Thomas's role in inventing what became a national icon was fully recognized. The original aluminum tray can now be seen in the Smithsonian Institution.

Thomas said of his invention: "It's a pleasure being identified as the person who did this because it changed the way people live. It's part of the fabric of our society."

But wife Susan has admitted her late husband's pride did not extend to consuming the fruit of his labors.

"He was a gourmet cook. He never ate the TV dinners," she said.