How Cotton Candy Works

Cotton Candy Technology

Cotton candy machines
Cotton candy machines have undergone several improvements in recent years.

In 1899, John C. Wharton, a candy maker, and William J. Morrison, a dentist, received a patent for "certain new and useful improvements in candy machines." Wharton and Morrison worked together in Nashville, Tenn., to design a machine that made spun sugar, a process normally done by hand.

Instead of melting sugar in a pan over an open fire, it was melted by an electric heating element at the base of a funnel-shaped dish. Instead of flinging the substance with a fork, the machine rotated rapidly, flinging the syrup through tiny holes in the funnel using centrifugal force. An outer bowl caught the threads as they cooled. The finished product was fine and fluffy, almost ethereal. Thus, the inventors dubbed it "fairy floss." The name "cotton candy" didn't become popular until the 1920s.

Here again, sugar's chemical construction was instrumental to the outcome. The molten sugar was flung so forcefully and cooled so rapidly that the molecules didn't have time to reorganize as crystals. Cotton candy, like caramel and toffee, is thus called a noncrystalline candy.

Fairy floss was a huge success at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. It was scooped out and served in a wooden box for 25 cents -- half the admission price to the fair itself -- and the entrepreneurs earned more than $17,000 over the exposition's six-month run.

But like many prototypes, the cotton candy machine had room for improvement. It was noisy, shook terribly and often broke down. A spring base, added in1949, increased its efficiency and durability [source: Feiler].