William A. Mitchell, the food scientist who invented Pop Rocks, died on July 26 of congestive heart failure. He was 92.
The development of the exploding candy was actually an accidental affair. In 1956, Mitchell was trying to create an instant soft drink. He mixed some sugar flavoring with carbon dioxide and tasted the results. Instantly, the concoction began to pop in his mouth.
Mitchell patented Pop Rocks in 1956. The candy hit the market almost two decades later and became an instant hit. Pop Rocks were so popular that kids actually started spreading urban myths about the small, fruit-flavored sweets. One suggested that mixing the candy with soda pop would cause a person’s stomach to explode. Another claimed that the actor who played the character of Mikey in LIFE cereal commercials had actually died by mixing the candy with Coca-Cola.
Both rumors were false.
General Foods battled the “exploded kid” myths by printing full-page ads in 45 major publications and writing 50,000 letters to school principals around the U.S. Mitchell even toured the country to show parents and kids that Pop Rocks actually generate less gas than half a can of soda. And John Gilchrist, the actor who played Mikey, is still very much alive.
As a chemist with the Eastman Kodak Company, Mitchell helped devise a chemical process to develop the color green. From 1941 to 1976, he worked at General Foods Corp. in White Plains, N.Y. There he obtained over 70 patents, including inventions related to Cool Whip, Jell-O and Tang. During World War II, he also created a popular tapioca substitute.