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March 7, 2023 7 mins

During his 35-year career with General Foods, William Mitchell invented some of America's favorite, fun, and time-saving junk foods. From quick-set Jell-O to Cool Whip, learn how he did it in this episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/famous-inventors/meet-man-invented-cool-whip-tang.htm

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio, Hey Brainstuff, Lauren Vogelbaum.
Here cool Quickset, Jello tang, pop rocks. These are the
packaged foods that shaped and were shaped by generations of
Americans coming of age in the nineteen sixties to the
nineteen nineties, and they were all invented by one guy,

(00:25):
William A. Mitchell, a research chemist who's thirty five year
career at General Foods Corporation coincided with America's mid century
fascination with convenience foods. One Marv Rudolph worked with Mitchell
for six years at the company. In an interview with
Great Big Story, he said Bill was the inventor at
General Foods. He knew what amplified flavors, what colors to

(00:48):
use to make something more attractive. If you had a problem,
he was the guy to go to. Management tried to
promote Bill many times, but he said, no, just keep
me in my lab. It's what I want to do.
Mitchell was awarded more than seventy patents for foods he
invented while working there, but his success was not a given.
He was almost killed in an explosion before he ever

(01:09):
had a chance to concoct some of the world's favorite
junk foods. Born to a Minnesota farm family in nineteen eleven, A.
Mitchell was no stranger to hard work. His father died
while he was still an elementary school, so Mitchell harvested
peas and beans for area farmers to help supplement the
family income. By the time he was a teenager, Mitchell's

(01:30):
family had relocated to Colorado, where he earned money by
trapping muskrats and harvesting melons. During high school, he worked
an overnight shift operating the sugar crystallization tanks at the
American Beach Sugar Company, and after a shift frequently caught
a scant two hours of sleep. Before classes began, A
Mitchell worked as a carpenter to pay his way through

(01:52):
undergrad in Nebraska. Went on to earn a master's degree
in chemistry from the University of Nebraska, then stepped into
a research chemist role at the Agricultural Experiment Station in Lincoln.
Not long after he started working there, a laboratory explosion
from heating a cracked beaker of alcohol left him with
second and third degree burns over eighty percent of his body.

(02:15):
After months of recovery, he returned to the lab, this
time as a research chemist at General Foods Corporation in
White Plains, New York, where he would spend the next
thirty five years inventing one unique convenience food after another.
One of Mitchell's first food stuff inventions was a replacement
for tapioca, a staple that helped quell the hunger of

(02:36):
American forces fighting in World War Two. To combat a
shortage of naturally occurring tapioca, which is a starch extracted
from the cassava plant, Mitchell developed a tapioca adjacent product
derived from the starches of more readily available grains and gelatine,
which soldiers nicknamed Mitchell's mud. In nineteen fifty seven, he

(02:58):
went on to create a powdered drink that would eventually
wind up in space tang. A tang was composed primarily
of sugar with a bit of vitamin C and some
additives thrown in a When mixed with water, it turns
into a bright tangerine colored drink that tastes strongly of oranges.
Although sales of the drink powder were initially lackluster, it

(03:20):
captured the imagination and taste buds of many Americans when
it went into orbit. A tang was used in nineteen
sixty two to make the water more palatable for astronaut
John Glenn's Mercury space flight. It masked the metallic flavor
of the stored liquid. Tang was subsequently brought a board
more space flights, and by the time the Apollo eight

(03:43):
mission was televised in nineteen sixty eight, a tang was
the major sponsor of ABC's space launch broadcast, though astronaut
Buzz Aldron much later admitted and I quote tang sucks.
Even as Tang was taking American shopping list by storm,
Mitchell had set his sights on food inventions that would

(04:04):
make meal preparation faster and easier for home cooks. In
nineteen sixty seven, he patented a quick set form of
cello that could be made with cold water rather than hot,
saving a step and a bunch of setting time, and
just a few months after that, Mitchell came up with Coolwhip,
the first freezer safe non dairy whipped cream. Unlike dairy

(04:27):
cream whipped into a foam which would collapse or even
separate if it freezes, a cool whip is stabilized so
it can be stored frozen, making it easier to ship
and saving consumers from the labor involved in making fresh
whipped cream. Cool Whip also starred in many recipes of
the mid twentieth century, like flag cake and Mississippi Mudpie. Nowadays,

(04:48):
coolwhip does include some milk and cream, as American consumers
tastes have swung away from artificiality, though of course we
still like to save time. Perhaps mitchell most endearing invention
was pop rocks from nineteen fifty six. It came about
when he was experimenting with ways to add carbonation to

(05:08):
powdered kool aid. The carbonated drink mix didn't quite work
as hoped, so Mitchell gave up on it. But twenty
years later another scientist tweaked the formula and the result
was the explosive candy called pop rocks that crackles and
fizzles inside your mouth. By the way, contrary to the
popular myth, consuming pop rocks along with soda won't make

(05:29):
your stomach explode. General Foods had to take out full
page ads in newspapers in the nineteen seventies to refute
that claim. But it was this commitment to the science
of discovery and his willingness to fail that made Mitchell's
career accomplishments so enduring. Take for example, his efforts to
create dry alcohol by mixing wet alcohol with an intensely

(05:53):
processed absorbent starch called multodextron. It didn't work out, but
each discovery was a learning experience that informed his future efforts.
For the article, this episode is based on how Stuff Works.
Spoke with Claire Conagan, who's the associate director of content
at Data Essential of food and beverage market research and
intelligence platform. She said pop Rocks was an attempt at

(06:16):
instant soda that found a different purpose. Tang was made
to simulate fresh orange juice via flavor crystals, making it
easier to transport and longer to store. A cool whip
was made to ease the handwhipping cream process for people
and to allow it to be stored frozen. They all
remain nostalgic today and are often reintroduced to new generations
by their parents or grandparents who are nostalgic or appreciate

(06:39):
the convenience. Mitchell retired from General Foods in nineteen seventy six,
and he passed away in two thousand and four, a
father of seven who was married for sixty years, and
whose daughter Cheryl, became a food scientist too. He was
remembered in his obituary as a devoted, stimulating, and loving parent.

(07:00):
Of course, he's also remembered, even if not always by name,
by the millions of consumers who have startled their taste
buds with pop rocks or pretended they were an astronaut
while drinking tang. Today's episode is based on the article
Meet the Man who invented Poolwhip, Tang and pop Rocks

(07:21):
on Housteworks dot com, written by Laurel Dove. Brainstuff is
production of iHeartRadio in partnership with HowStuffWorks dot Com, and
is produced by Tyler Klang. For more podcasts from my
heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever
you listen to your favorite shows.

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