One of the key features of a traditional TV dinner is the compartmentalized tray, which neatly separates the various foods in the pre-cooked meal and keeps them from running together and forming an unappealing mess when you reheat them. The first such tray seems to have been developed for use on United Airlines back in 1937, for the first kitchen on an airplane.
Around 1945, Maxson Food Systems created the first frozen three-course meal that fit into such a tray. Maxson began supplying those meals to Pan American Airways, along with a convection oven specially designed for use on airplanes [source: Smith].
From there, though, the origin story of TV dinners gets a bit murky. In 1946, Maxson marketed a consumer version of its airline meal-in-a-tray, the Strato Meal, in a grocery store in New Jersey. It came on a compartmentalized tray made of cardboard [source: Nickerson]. A few years later, Pittsburgh-based entrepreneurs Albert and Meyer Bernstein marketed a similar product, but in an aluminum tray. It was sold only in Pittsburgh, but was a big success, moving 400,000 units in 1950. The Bernsteins went on to found Quaker State Food Corp. [source: Bortner].
But both of those manufacturers became also-rans in 1954, when C.A. Swanson & Sons, a Nebraska-based poultry processor, started marketing its version of the meal-in-a-tray. In some accounts, Swanson sales executive Gerry Thomas got the inspiration after flying on Pan Am and seeing the airline's trays. One of Swanson's best moves was to call its product a "TV Dinner" and put it in a package designed to look like a TV set -- a ploy to capitalize on the growing popularity of the relatively young technology. By 1956, Swanson was king of the TV dinner, selling 13 million of them per year, thanks to a massive TV marketing campaign and a lower-cost product (20 cents a meal versus Quaker State's 98 cents a meal) [source: Bortner]. Today, one of Swanson's trays is kept in the Smithsonian Institution's collection [source: Smith].