Some Of The Best Retro Junk Foods Came From The Mind Of One Brilliant Scientist

What do Cool Whip, Tang, and Pop Rocks have in common? They were all invented by William A. Mitchell, a food chemist (via Linda Hall Library). Although some can argue that these foods are questionable in terms of actually being food, they have nonetheless withstood the test of time (per Smithsonian Magazine). So much so, that they are now considered to be classic American snacks and have spurred endless recipes that are enjoyed even now. In fact, Joey Green's Wacky Uses reports that Cool Whip specifically is still considered to be a staple in American households. But who exactly was Mitchell? Born in Minnesota in 1911, the scientist had humble beginnings.

According to The Atlantic, Mitchell spent his early life and much of his youth working as a farm boy. At one point, he was working all night for the American Beet Sugar Company and only sleeping two hours a day. Despite this, Mitchell still went to school. Smithsonian Magazine writes that he also worked as a carpenter in an effort to earn money for college.

Eventually, his hard work paid off, as Mitchell attended Cotner College and the University of Nebraska. He received a graduate degree in chemistry from the latter. Shortly after, Mitchell nabbed a job at the Agricultural Experiment Station in Lincoln. While he was working, the lab exploded, resulting in severe burns. Nonetheless, Mitchell recovered and found a new job (per America Fun Fact of the Day).

William A. Mitchell's inventions

In 1941, Mitchell was hired by General Foods (via America Fun Fact of the Day). As this coincided with the early years of World War II, The Atlantic explains, he was tasked with inventing a substitute for tapioca. The war had depleted tapioca resources, which was presenting issues for soldiers abroad. That being said, Mitchell created a substitute that integrated starches and gelatin. Ultimately, Smithsonian Magazine writes, the troops nicknamed this new and improved tapioca "Mitchell's mud" for his efforts. The product was a hit. His next big invention was in 1957 with Tang, a powdered sugary drink.

Although the Tang wasn't an immediate success, that all changed when NASA made it the official drink for the Mercury and Gemini missions (per Linda Hall Library). However, some astronauts were not a fan. Years later, NPR reported that Buzz Aldrin proclaimed that "Tang Sucks." In the 1950s, The Atlantic writes, Mitchell also created Pop Rocks, fruit-flavored candy that fizzes once it enters the mouth. This invention was actually a mishap that resulted from an attempt in creating an instant soda. Nonetheless, Smithsonian Magazine states that Mitchell didn't patent the product until 1961, and Pop Rocks were not released on the market until 1975 (via the Los Angeles Times).

The Pop Rocks controversy

Once Pop Rocks hit the market, The Atlantic reports, the candy was the subject of a disturbing urban legend. According to Mental Floss, rumor had it that Mickey, a child who was a spokesperson for Life Cereal (as seen on YouTube), had died after ingesting Pop Rocks with a soda chaser. As Linda Hall Library explains, many believe that this "deadly" combo had led to his explosion. This, of course, was not true, and the actor who played Mickey, John Gilchrist, was and is very much alive (per Snopes). Nevertheless, the hearsay was a publicity nightmare. Per Smithsonian Magazine, General Foods did damage control.

This included taking out numerous advertisements and a publicity tour for Mitchell, where he explained that Pop Rocks were indeed safe to consume. Despite these efforts, Snopes states, the candy was taken off the market in 1983. Pop Rocks were later rebranded and remarketed by 1985. Beyond Pop Rocks, Cool Whip, and Tang, Mitchell also created quick-set-Jello and once worked for the Eastman Kodak Company (via the Los Angeles Times).

In 1976, he retired with more than 70 patents under his belt. According to The Atlantic, in his later years, Mitchell helped his daughter create a coffee substitute called Dacopa. William A. Mitchell died at the age of 92 on July 26, 2004 (per Linda Hall Library).