Today In Science History – July 26 – Chemist Bill Mitchell

Tang Ad
Magazine ad for Tang Instant Drink after NASA began using their product in space.

July 26 marks the passing of William “Bill” Mitchell. Mitchell was an American food chemist and prolific inventor.

Most people won’t recognize his name, but you may recognize his inventions. He is the man responsible for Cool-Whip, Tang, Pop Rocks, powdered egg whites and quick-set Jello. He has over 70 patents to his name for various food oriented inventions.

His first job as a chemist was almost his last. He was a research chemist at an Agricultural Experiment Station in Lincoln, Nebraska when an explosion in his lab severely injured him. He received second and third degree burns over most of his body. After his recovery, he began working in a safer field of food chemistry. He got a job in 1941 with General Foods Corporation.

His first food chemistry success was in response of the tapioca shortage caused by World War II. The United States couldn’t get tapioca because it’s primary source, the cassava plant, grows mainly in Asian countries. Mitchell developed a substitute that helped keep the US Army in tapioca.

Pop Rocks is a candy that reacts with the saliva in your mouth to produce carbon dioxide. This reaction causes the candy to fizz and ‘pop’ in your mouth. Its invention was an accident and came around from trying to make instant carbonated beverages. Pop Rocks was also the center of a famous urban legend.¬†Mikey, the kid from the Life cereal commercials died when he ate the candy and washed it down with a cola, making his stomach explode…and that is why you don’t see Mikey on TV anymore. There is absolutely no way to generate enough gas to blow apart a child with Pop Rocks, but some parents became nervous. General Foods was forced to set up a special hotline telephone number for concerned parents.¬†General Foods also countered the claims with an ad campaign in 45 major publications and 50,000 letters to school principals. Mitchell himself toured the country to show people that Pop Rocks weren’t dangerous. He must have been successful because you can still purchase Pop Rocks today.

Tang is an orange flavored additive for water and another Mitchell creation. It was originally sold as a powdered breakfast drink in 1959, but nobody really drank it. It was basically ignored until 1965 when NASA needed something to hide the “nasty” taste of the water produced by the life support systems during the Gemini missions. The astronauts complained of a metallic taste to the reclaimed water. NASA turned to Tang as their solution by hiding the metal taste with orange flavoring and vitamins A & C. General Foods was quick to start marketing Tang as the drink of the astronauts. Tang was suddenly popular and sales took off. In fact, most people don’t know Tang was around longer than the space program, but most people believe Tang was developed for the space program.

For a bit of fun, here is a 1966 television commercial for Tang. It was part of the original push after NASA began supplying astronauts with the beverage mix.

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