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People at the 1904 World’s Fair Paid Half the Price of Admission for a Box of Cotton Candy

Celebrating cotton candy’s sugary, innovative goodness

An early cotton-candy machine. (USPTO patent 816114)
smithsonian.com

Gather round! It's National Cotton Candy Day! 

Cotton candy, which is celebrated today (because who doesn't like those yummy strands of sugar), dates all the way back to the turn of the last century. Our story begins in 1904, when a Nashville dentist and his candymaker friend came to the World's Fair in St. Louis with the machine they designed “to convert ordinary granulated sugar into finely-attenuated threads.” Inventor William J. Morrison and his co-inventor, confectioner John C. Wharton, charged $0.25 for a box of “fairy floss,” as it was then known. They sold over 65,000 boxes, even though that amount of money was half the price of admission to the fair, writes Elizabeth Abbott in Sugar: A Bittersweet History. Cotton candy took off and remains popular today. That pillowy texture and the pretty colours make it a perennial favourite. 

Their machine worked along the same lines as what you might see at a fair today, writes Rebecca Rupp for National Geographic: a heater at the top of the head melts the sugar into syrup, while the centrifugal force generated by its spinning forces the syrup to spray out through tiny holes. The 50-micron strands never get the chance to recrystallize before they cool, she writes, resulting in the cloudy of pink or blue that the vendor hands you.

Sugar’s capacity to be shaped into very thin strands was known to fifteenth-century Italian cooks, Rupp writes. They drew out the strands by hand using a fork. “Spun sugar,” as it was called, was used to make table settings, dioramas and other sculptures for the rich. 

The name “cotton candy” comes from a later dentist, Josef Lascaux. In the 1920s, Rupp writes,  he set out to make the cotton candy machine better, but failed. The candy is still called fairy floss in Australia, while in Great Britain and India it's known as candy floss, report Donna Ruko and Amanda Savage for ABC News. In France, it's known as the French equivalent of "Papa's Beard." In Greece, it's called Old Lady's Hair. People around the world also make intricate cotton candy art: shapes like cartoon characters and hearts.

The machine that gives cotton candy its unique texture wasn't perfect when it was first introduced, writes Rupp. It had a tendency to overheat and lose balance. Today, its descendant might be the answer scientists have been looking for when it comes to making artificial organs that work.

study published earlier this year in Advanced Healthcare Materials reported that an adapted cotton candy machine  was able to make a 3-D system of artificial capillaries that were able to keep living cells going for more than a week, writes David Salisbury for Vanderbilt University. That’s a big improvement over what current methods can do, he writes.

“Some people in the field think this approach is a little crazy,” Leon Bellan, one of the study’s authors, told Salisbury. But the machine can be used to build a network of strands made of a hair gel-like substance that allows tissues to develop close enough together to thrive.

Bellan started working on the research as a graduate student at Cornell. In 2009, he told NPR that cotton candy fibres “really are about the same size as the really small blood vessels within the tissues of our body.”

Artificial organs would be a game-changer for medicine, writes Matthew Shaer for Smithsonian. On average, 21 people die each day waiting for organ transplants, he writes. Simple organs, like bladders, have had some success being grown in the lab, but the complex tissues of a kidney or a heart are a ways off. Bellan's work offers another potential path to creating artificial complex organs, all thanks to an invention more usually associated with a ferris wheel than an operating theater.

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