Imagine a world without Tang, Cool Whip, or Pop Rocks. Okay, it’s not exactly hard to do, but without a man named Bill Mitchell, none of them would exist. He was a lead food scientist at General Foods from 1941 to 1976, and during his time there he filed more than 70 patents, helping to shape the world of packaged food as we know it.
Born in 1911 in Raymond, Minnesota, Mitchell spent his youth working on a farm before landing a job at an agricultural experiment station in Lincoln, Nebraska. That lab proceeded to blow up with him inside it shortly thereafter, but he recovered from burns over most of his body and landed his job at General Foods several years later, after a stint as a high school science teacher and another at Kodak, where he helped design a chemical process to develop the color green. His first success at General Foods was developing a substitute for tapioca during World War II, but he caught his big break during the 1950s, when he was trying to create an instant carbonated soda. The powder he created didn’t carbonate the water he added it to, but when he tried some on its own it created a pleasing, slightly dangerous-feeling fizziness in his mouth. It took General Foods nearly 18 years (!) to figure out how to market it, but once they did, Pop Rocks became an instant smash.
Dozens upon dozens of other inventions were attributed to Mitchell over the ensuing years. His most notable other invention was Tang in 1957 (it didn’t really catch on until NASA added it to their spaceflight menu in 1962), but he also held patents for inventions that paved the way for Cool Whip and quick-set Jell-O.
It’s easy to forget that every single food product we see on store shelves was invented by someone. And Mitchell, who passed away in 2004 at age 92, belongs in the hall of fame. You can learn all about the 50 most important inventions and discoveries in the history of food and drink here.