Fish fingers, boxed software, and processes that create industries

20.28, Thursday 6 May 2021

I read the other day that the invention of modern frozen food is credited to Clarence Birdseye in 1924. Birdseye’s quick-freezing process actually ended up creating 168 patents! These covered not only the freezing technique but also the packaging, type of paper used, and related innovations.

Which is funny because I associated the Birds Eye brand with fish fingers and potato waffles, but it didn’t occur to me that name was from an actual historical figure, and that they had made a significant breakthrough.


Pilkington. I grew up in the 1980s, at the height of the double glazing boom, so radio ads were pretty much all for windows and conservatories. (My first website built for money was in 1996, for a windows and conservatories firm, but that was the tail end). So the name “Pilkington” is etched in my memory. Anyway it turns out that, in the 1950s, Sir Alastair Pilkington co-invented the continuous float glass method, which was so successful that it replaced all other methods.

There’s something about an industrial process named for a person that reminds me of old school science. It’s Wheatstone bridge this (a type of electrical circuit) and Bessemer process that (the mass production of steel).

A certain era of sci-fi is littered with fictional artefacts named for fictional people, and I love it.

e.g. the Rodebush-Cleveland free drive in First Lensman (1950) Roeser’s Rays in Spacehounds of IPC (1947) both by E. E. “Doc” Smith.

But really what I’m into is the idea that a single insight can be continuously exploited by the company that originated it.

In the modern era, Google almost qualifies, having invented PageRank, the modern method of ranking websites, but perhaps more important was self-service AdWords (early 2000s?) which introduced automated auctions, interest targeting, and engagement feedback loops. So clever, but it means that Google isn’t as singular as I’d like.

I think maybe Microsoft qualifies? After all: Bill Gates in 1976 wrote the infamous Open Letter to Hobbyists in which he set out the argument for commercial, consumer software – basically the concept of software as boxed product. And that idea created an industry.

It’s not frozen fish though, is it.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.