Bill Bruce is group editorial director, FoodBev Media. This is a personal blog and views expressed are his own.

20 Jun 2011 (Updated 17 Jul 2011)


Tang, Teflon and Velcro

I posted the news on FoodBev.com this morning that Tang had become Kraft's 12th billion dollar brand and noted that it first rose to fame across the US as 'the powdered drink that travelled with astronauts to space'.

Many think that Tang was created specially for the space programme, but in fact Tang was invented in 1957 by a General Foods Corp chemist called Bill Mitchell a year before Nasa was created.

Tang hit store shelves in powdered form in 1959. Sales struggled for six years until the powdery orange drink packed with nutrients was launched into space in 1965 as part of the Gemini astronauts' balanced meals.

John Glenn first took Tang to space in 1962 as part of an orbital eating experiment, but General Foods didn't take advantage of the space connection until the Gemini programme, at which point the company heavily advertised Tang as the drink of astronauts.

This set me wondering what other space-age inventions may not have quite the history we think we know.

Velcro, for instance, often cited as an invention for the space race, was in fact invented some 25 years before it was used in the Apollo missions. Swiss engineer George de Mestral created Velcro in 1941 after returning from a hunting trip. He noticed that burdock seeds clung to his clothes and his dog's fur. Using a microscope, he noticed hundreds of tiny hooks on the burdock seed, attached to loops on clothing and fur.

It took de Mestral 10 years to create the mechanical process to create the hooks and loops using synthetic materials, and he eventually received a patent in 1955. His hook-loop fasteners met with warm reviews, but he couldn't convince designers to incorporate them into their clothing lines. It wasn't until Nasa began using Velcro in its bulky space suits in the mid-1960s that the fasteners began to appear in consumer products.

And then there's Teflon, often quoted as a Nasa creation, yet Teflon was created accidently in 1938 by Roy Plunkett, working for a DuPont laboratory. By 1958, a French engineer, Marc Grégoire, and his wife had sold 1m pans coated with Teflon through their company, Tefal. By the time Nasa got around to using Teflon in spacesuits, Teflon was already a household word.

But back to Bill Mitchell, the inventor of Tang. While he was at General Foods he was also responsible for inventing Cool Whip, quick-set Jell-o, powdered egg whites, and the popular candy Pop Rocks. I bet he didn't foresee an out of this world billion dollar brand when he first created Tang.

Source: Dan the man trivia/The Atlantic/FoodBev Media

Bill Bruce is group editorial director of FoodBev Media. You can contact him here