Meet the Man Who Invented Cool Whip, Tang and Pop Rocks

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 
pop rocks, tang, cool whip
Research scientist William A. Mitchell created these iconic products of the Boomer generation. Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images/Keith Homan/Sarah Tee/Shutterstock

Cool Whip. Quick-set Jell-O. Tang. Pop Rocks.

These are the ready-made foods that shaped — and were influenced by — generations of Americans coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, and they were all invented by William A. Mitchell, a research chemist whose 35-year career coincided with America's midcentury fascination with convenience foods.

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"Bill was the inventor at General Foods, said Marv Rudoph in a recorded interview. The two worked together for six years at the company. "He knew what amplified flavors, what colors to 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,'" he added.

Mitchell was awarded more than 70 patents for foods he invented while working at General Foods Corp. from 1941 to 1976, but his success was not a given. He was almost killed in an explosion before he ever had a chance to concoct some of the world's favorite junk foods.

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An Explosive Start

Born to a Minnesota farm family in 1911, Mitchell wasn't a stranger to hard work. Mitchell's father died while he was still in 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 family had relocated to Lamar, Colorado, where he earned money by trapping muskrats and harvesting melons. During high school, Mitchell worked an overnight shift operating the sugar crystallization tanks at the American Beet Sugar Company, and after his shift, he frequently caught a scant two hours of sleep before classes began.

Mitchell worked as a carpenter to pay his way through Cotner College in Lincoln, Nebraska. He 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 at there, a laboratory explosion (from heating a cracked beaker of alcohol) left him with second- and third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body.

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After months of recovery, he returned to the lab, this time as a research chemist at General Foods Corp. in White Plains, New York, where he would spend the next 35 years inventing one unique convenience food after another.

Tang Takes to the Moon

One of Mitchell's first foodstuff inventions was a replacement for tapioca, a staple that helped quell the hunger of American forces fighting in World War II. To combat a shortage of naturally occurring tapioca (a starch extracted from the cassava plant), Mitchell developed a tapioca-adjacent product derived from the starches of readily available grains and gelatin, which soldiers nicknamed "Mitchell's mud."

In 1957, he went on to create a powdered drink that would eventually wind up in space: Tang. Tang was composed primarily of sugar with a bit of vitamin C thrown in. When mixed with water, it turned into a bright, tangerine-colored drink that tasted strongly of oranges. Although sales of the drink powder were initially lackluster, it captured the imagination (and tastebuds) of many Americans when it went into orbit.

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Tang was used in 1962 to make the water onboard astronaut John Glenn's Mercury space flight more palatable because it masked the metallic flavor of the stored liquid. Tang was subsequently aboard later space flights, and by the time the Apollo 8 mission was televised in 1968, Tang was the major sponsor of ABC's space launch broadcast. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin much later admitted that "Tang sucks."

Even as Tang was taking American shopping lists by storm, Mitchell had his sights set on food inventions that would make preparation faster for home cooks. In 1967, Mitchell had patented a quick-set form of Jell-O that could be made with cold water rather than hot, thus cutting down the time before the product was solid.

And just a few months after that, Mitchell came up with Cool Whip, the first frozen nondairy whipped cream. "That was a huge success for General Foods," said Rudolph. Unlike "real" whipped cream, Cool Whip could be stored frozen, making it easier to ship and saving consumers from the labor involved in making whipped cream. It also starred in many recipes of the mid-20th century like flag cake and Mississippi mud pie. Nowadays, Cool Whip does include some milk and cream as American consumers' tastes have swung away from artificiality (though they still like to save time.)

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Pop Rocks Spark an Urban Myth

Perhaps Mitchell's most endearing invention was that kiddy favorite, Pop Rocks, in 1956. That came about when he was experimenting with ways to carbonate Kool-Aid. "[Mitchell] said, Why can't I add carbon dioxide molecules to sugar?" said Rudolph, author of "Pop Rocks: The Inside Story of America's Revolutionary Candy" in the recorded interview mentioned earlier. "That was a great leap forward." The "carbonated candy" didn't quite work as hoped, so Mitchell gave up on it. Twenty years later, another scientist tweaked the formula, and the result was an explosive candy called Pop Rocks that crackled and fizzed inside your mouth.

Contrary to the popular urban myth, consuming Pop Rocks along with soda won't make your stomach explode. General Foods had to take out full-page ads in newspapers in the 1970s to refute the claim.

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William A. Mitchell's Legacy

It was this commitment to the science of discovery that made Mitchell's career accomplishments so enduring.

"Pop Rocks was an attempt at 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. Cool Whip was made to ease the hand-whipping cream process for people and to allow it to be stored frozen," says Claire Conaghan, associate director of content at Datassential, a food and beverage market research and intelligence platform, via email. "They all remain nostalgic today and are often reintroduced to new generations by their parents or grandparents who are nostalgic or appreciate the convenience."

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Brian Chau, a food scientist and food systems analyst who runs a food science consulting firm, once met Mitchell's daughter, Cheryl, who, like her father, became a food scientist. While Cheryl Mitchell's work has focused on using natural ingredients to craft vegan milk, her father was quick to offer experimental ideas. When his daughter began growing dahlias, William Mitchell suggested they roast the plant's tubers, a process that produced "a coffee-like taste, which the Mitchells began marketing as Dacopa, a coffee substitute with health benefits," according to an article in The Atlantic.

Dacopa didn't meet with commercial success, not like the quick and convenient products William Mitchell had once created. Instead, coffee consumption trends went the way of complex and time-consuming endeavors, of laborious cold foam and nitrogen drips.

"There is demand for innovations," Chau says via email, "but it is now applied in food biotech and food tech as seen from alternative sources of protein, fermented byproducts, and upcycled waste products."

Mitchell retired from General Foods in 1976. A father of seven who was married for 60 years, he was remembered in his 2004 obituary as a "devoted, stimulating and loving parent" and, of course, by the millions of consumers who startled their tastebuds with Pop Rocks or pretended they were an astronaut while drinking Tang.

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