In the late 1930’s, a man by the name of William Maxson was growing cauliflower in his home garden in West Orange, New Jersey. One year, just before the war, he grew more than he could eat. Rather than throw it away, he decided to freeze it. It’s uncertain why. Though most Americans owned a refrigerator, but few of them came with iceboxes, so even though people were already experimenting with frozen food, the practice was far from widespread. Maxson was one of the exceptions . He froze his leftovers and, when he warmed them up a year later, found that they still tasted just as good as they had when they were fresh. This was big surprise for Maxson. He started experiementing with other foods, including French fries and soft-boiled eggs, and swore off fresh food for the rest of his life, apart from the occassional salad. His enthusiasm was a bit extremey, but it led to some some surprising discoveries, including frozen TV dinners, convection ovens, and the airfryer.
Who Was William L. Maxson?
William L. Maxson was born in 1889 in Minnesota. He graduated from the Annapolis Naval Academy in 1921 and served as a midshipman until 1935, when he resigned his commission and entered the private sector. Settling in New Jersey with his wife and three children, he founded the W.L. Maxson Corporation and began churning out inventions: a multiplying machine, toy building blocks, and a robot navigator that allowed airplane pilots to calculate their air positions in flight (Howard Hughes used one when he flew around the world in 1938). Maxson’s success improved dramatically during World War II, when he invented the Maxson Multiple Gun Mount – a mobile pillbox that allowed allied gunners to safely shoot down enemy aircraft during bombing raids. Over 4,000 were put into use against Germany and Japan.
The Sky Plate
In 1944, Maxson used his enthusiasm for frozen food to provide better meals to servicemen crossing the Atlantic. At the time, the men and woman of the Naval Air Transport Service were been subsisting off cold sandwiches and K-rations during their flights, but Maxson had a better idea. Why not freeze a full meal and heat it up in the air? He was already using this technique to feed his dinner guests. He would lead them into his freezer ad let them choosse a from a range of different meals he’d had prepared and frozen. One guest could have chicken, another could have steak or stew and so on: “None of this nonsense of everybody at the table eating the same thing.” Maxson took his idea to the Navy and was soon producing frozen meals based on the old blue-plate specials from the 1920’s and 1930’s. The plates were divided into three sections, containing a meat course and two servings of vegetables. The food was partially cooked, then frozen. Servicemen could choose from six different meals: steak, veal cutlet, ham steak, meat loaf, beef stew, and frankfurters with beans. Once the meals were ready, they could be heated up in the air at any time.
The Original Airfryer
Today, frozen meals are heated up in microwaves, but since microwave ovens wouldn’t be invented until late 1945 (and wouldn’t be commercially available until 1967), Maxson had to find a way to cook food fast using traditional technology. The solution he created was called the Maxson Whirlwind Oven. It was made of aluminum and steel and weighed 35 pounds. It heated the food using a 120 volt DC motor, a standard feature on aircraft during the 1940’s, and could be powered by gas, kerosene, or electricity. The oven could hold six meals at a time and cook them in about fifteen minutes, half the time of a regular oven. Maxson’s secret was a fan installed in the back of the unit that circulated hot air around the food. Though not seem remarkable by modern standards, at the time it was special enough that Popular Science Magazine called it “magic.”
Nowadays, it’s called “forced-convection,” and it reduced cooking times in a couple of ways. First, it eliminates hot and cold zones within the oven. Because heat rises, the top of an oven was always warmer than the bottom, sometimes by as much as 30 degrees. This is the reason why older baking recipes recommend switching the positions of the trays halfway through cooking. Because the top tray was always warmer, it cooked faster, so switching trays was the ony way to everything was cooked evenly. Not in Maxson’s oven. By adding a fan, Maxson prevented hot air from accumulating in one section of the oven. Instead, it got spread evenly over the food. Moving the air also increased the rate of heat transfer between the air and the food. In an ordinary oven, food absorbs heat through the process of natural convection, the tendency of hot air to rise and cold air to sink. As hot air rises up, its energy gets taken in by the food stuffs. As the air loses energy, it sinks back down again and gets warmed up by the heating element, which causes it to rise and transfer more energy: a typical convection current. Forced convection accelerates this process, blowing the air through a heating element and onto your food. This bring the food into contact with warm air faster and forces it away once it’s cooled down.
Death of the Sky Plate
After the war, Maxson’s military contracts declined, so he turned to the civilian sector instead. Civilian aviation had declined drastically during the war, so it took a while for Maxson to find new customers. In the meanwhile, he began marketing his frozen dinners to grocery stores and supermarkets and announced plans to expand his line of frozen meals to 50 items. He also made plans to sell his Whirlwind oven to households as well for $15-$25 dollars ($160-$265 today). His inventions were featured in Popular Mechanics and Popular Science and by 1947, it looked like everything was going according to plan. Pan Am had introduced his sky plates on selected flights in 1947, and planned to use them in all their flights in 1949. A few specialty stores had even begun selling his frozen meals. Then, in July 1947, tragedy struck. William Maxson passed away following an operation. His three children had little interest in continuing his business and sold off his inventions, bringing his company to an end.
Convection Ovens & the Re-Birth of the Airfryer
Fortunately, Maxson’s ideas continued on. Following his death, other companies continued to produce new products based on his original designs. The Maxson Whirlwind Oven heated food very quickly, but had a maximum temperature of about 200°F. The airflow sucked moisture out of the food as well, which meant vegetables tended to come out overcooked while meats came out dry and tough (stews, pastas, and stews were just fine). In 1967, the Nordskog Company from California found a way to re-engineer the motor on Maxson’s oven to prevent the motor from burning out at higher temperatures. Around the same time, the Malleable Iron Range Company developed the first full-sized convection oven for home use. Though sales were initially sluggish, they gradually increased in the 1990’s, and early 2000’s, but it wasn’t until 2008 that Maxson’s original idea of a small, personal convection finally made a comeback. That was the year the Philips Air Fryer was first introduced, followed by GoWise, T-fal, Kalorik, and Avalon Bay Air Fryers. Because frozen food was now used so exclusively in microwaves, these new airfryers focused on creating fresh meals using raw ingredients instead. They can cook chicken, steak, fish, or potatoes in minutes, like a convection oven that fit on your countertop. One day, you might find them on an airplane once again. Perhaps you’ll even be able to order a “Sky Plate Special.”