Daniel Thompson, the man who invented a machine that would forever change the bagel industry, died on September 3 in Palm Desert, California at the age of 94, reported The Los Angeles Times.
Nearly fifty years later after Henry Ford introduced the world to the moving assembly line as he unveiled the Model T, Thompson patented the Thompson Bagel Machine, beckoning an era of pre-packaged bagels. The ultimate success of Thompson’s bagel machine was a grueling undertaking he inherited from his father, a Jewish baker from England whose lifelong mission was to create such a machine that “would help expand the market for the beloved Jewish staple… what his son called “hockey pucks with holes.”
Thompson grew up with memories of his father toiling away in their one-car garage in Los Angeles, hoping to make strides in the field of automated bagels, but to no avail. Little did he know then that he would soon perfect such a contraption—beginning the task in 1958.
Five years later, he leased the first one to another visionary, Murray Lender, whose family-run business in New Haven, Conn., introduced the first line of frozen bagels.
With Thompson’s machine, Lender’s Bagels began mass producing the homely O-shaped bread, and other bakers soon joined the movement. Purists complained that automation changed the character of the bagel for the worse, but within a decade, the ethnic favorite went mainstream, sold in stores across the country and paving the way for the proliferation of neighborhood bagel shops and varieties.
Thompson’s company turned a profit in 1964, the year after Lender’s adopted the technology, and is still in business, run by son Stephen. “Lender’s,” writes the New York Times, “which still uses Thompson machines, is today among the largest makers of bagels in the United States, producing 750 million a year.” In 1993, Thompson told newspaper:
“[My] machine rolls 200 to 400 dozen bagels an hour. You used to have two guys hand-shaping and boiling and baking who could turn out maybe 120 bagels an hour. With the machine and now the new ovens, I have one baker putting out 400 bagels an hour.”
“[Thompson’s invention] meant that any Joe off the street could make a bagel,” Matthew Goodman, author of Jewish Food: The World at Table, told The New York Times. Goodman went on to attribute the machine for the bagel’s devolution “into something that is large and pillowy and flavorless,” becoming a staple in the American pantry “à la Wonder Bread.”
Thompson wasn’t a one-patent inventor either, reported the L.A. Times:
In 1950, he and his wife were visiting friends when one of them mentioned ping-pong. It was one of Thompson’s favorite games but, as he told friends, he hated assembling and breaking down the heavy table every time he played.
“He said there must be a better way,” Ada Thompson recalled last week, “so he sat down with a pad of paper and started sketching.”
Twenty minutes later, she said, he had the design for a folding ping-pong table. He patented it in 1953 and sold the rights to a major manufacturer. The proceeds from the sale became “the kick-starter, financially, for the bagel machine,” [his son] Craig Thompson said.
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Tess Cutler is an intern at Tablet.