PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. A 1948 Nebraska alumnus and inventor of the TV dinner died Monday. Gerry Thomas, 83, had a long bout with cancer, relatives told The Arizona Republic.
After graduating from the University of Nebraska, Thomas invented the TV dinner and gave it its singular name in 1954.
Thomas was a salesman for Omaha-based C.A. Swanson and Sons in late 1954 when he had the idea of packaging frozen meals in a segmented tray.
"It's a pleasure being identified as the person who did this because it changed the way people live," he said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. "It's part of the fabric of our society."
He recalled that the inspiration came when he was visiting a distributor, spotted a metal tray and was told it was developed for an experiment in preparation of hot meals on airliners.
"It was just a single compartment tray with foil," he recalled. "I asked if I could borrow it and stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat."
The NU grad sketched the now-famous triangle design of three compartments a copy of which now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution and pitched the idea to his bosses.
He said he came up with a three-compartment tray because "I spent five years in the service so I knew what a mess kit was. You could never tell what you were eating because it was all mixed together."
Since interest in television was booming, he added: "I figured if you could borrow from that, maybe you could get some attention. I think the name made all the difference in the world."
The first Swanson TV Dinner turkey with corn bread dressing and gravy, sweet potatoes and buttered peas sold for about $1 apiece and could be cooked in 25 minutes at 425 degrees.
"We had the TV screen and the knobs pictured on the package. That was the real start of marketing," Thomas said.
Ten million dinners were sold in the first year of national distribution.
They drew "hate mail from men who wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mothers did," but they got him a bump in pay to $300 a month and a $1,000 bonus.
"I didn't complain. A thousand dollars was a lot of money back then," he said.
However, he didn't want to call himself the father of the TV dinner.
"I really didn't invent the dinner. I innovated the tray on how it could be served, coined the name and developed some unique packaging," he said in the 1999 AP interview. "If I'm the father of the TV dinner, who's the mother? I think it's ludicrous."
After the Campbell Soup Co. acquired Swanson in 1955, Thomas became a sales manager, then marketing manager and director of marketing and sales. He left the company after a heart attack in 1970. He later directed an art gallery and did consulting work.