Written by Kristin Kish, Digital Marketing Intern.
#STEAMspotlight is a series highlighting past and present STEAM pioneers—the scientists, techies, engineers, artists and mathematicians who continue to inspire future generations.
Born October 21, 1911, William “Bill” A. Mitchell was an American food chemist. Haven’t heard of him? Don’t worry. While you might not know him by name, you’ve probably enjoyed one of the many, many products he’s invented over the years. Mitchell was the key inventor behind some of America’s favorite foods—Tang, Cool Whip and Pop Rocks, to name a few.
Born in Raymond, Minnesota, Mitchell grew up picking peas and packing melons for local farmers. It was tough work, but it motivated Mitchell. Anxious to achieve bigger and better things, he worked long, grueling hours—attending school during the day, harvesting vegetables every evening and sleeping only two hours a night. And his hard work paid off. After graduating from the University of Nebraska with a master’s degree in chemistry, he quickly secured a research position at an Agricultural Experiment Station in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was here that he discovered a lifelong passion for creating, exploring and experimenting—with food!
In 1941, Mitchell was hired as a research chemist by General Foods Corporation, where he would spend the next 35 years working to revolutionize American kitchens. And revolutionize them, he did.
First, there was Mitchell’s much-needed, mass-produced tapioca substitute that fueled soldiers during World War II. Next was Tang, a powdered, fruit-flavored drink mix popularized by NASA in early manned space flights. Cool Whip, quick set Jell-O and powdered egg whites soon followed.
Mitchell’s most popular invention was a happy accident. Wanting to create an instant carbonated beverage, he combined sugar flavoring with carbon dioxide and put the mixture in his mouth. Voila, Pop Rocks were born! The exploding candy soon became a cultural phenomenon, with urban legends and ill-informed rumors perpetuating to this very day. (No, you will not die from eating Pop Rocks while drinking a soda.) To date, more than 500 million packets of Pop Rocks have been sold, making it one of the most popular sweet snacks of all time.
It’s also important to note that despite his many successes, some of Mitchell’s creations didn’t quite catch on with consumers. While Dacopa—a coffee substitute made from roasted dahlia tubers—was a flop, Mitchell should be commended for trying and failing. Did he stop creating? Nope, not at all!
In his many years of work, Mitchell received more than 70 food patents and transformed the way we eat. (And what we eat, too.) His contributions to food chemistry are innumerable, and many of the items he invented and patented are now staples in every American pantry.
But there’s something else we can take away from Mitchell’s life and his impressive body of work—he never stopped experimenting, even when he failed, and neither should we. Experimenting is not about always being right, or winning, or being successful. It’s about finding out what works and what doesn’t. It’s about knowing you tried something new and different. It’s about all that is possible.
We like to think that Mitchell’s innovative approach to experimenting with (and, yes, playing with) food is alive and well in Kitchen Lab, our kitchen space and science lab that’s home to exploring explosions, exciting experiments and, yes, culinary creations.
Are you a budding food chemist, too? We’ve got plenty of programs for you to try your hand at food chemistry! Take a look at a few of our upcoming offerings. Who knows? You might stumble upon your very own happy accident or surprise invention—just like Bill Mitchell.
Whisks and Wizards
Join us October 28 and 29 as we explore the culinary world of witches and wizards! We’re whipping up frothy buttery brews and tasty chocolate frogs. Come create the perfect Halloween treat!
Calling all candy architects—our Candy Chemistry Gingerbread Workshop is for you. Try your hand at making marzipan, lollipops, caramels and more in this fun, festive and family-friendly workshop for ages seven and up.