In December 1901, botanist Alexander Pierce Anderson created puffed rice while experimenting with starch crystals in his laboratory. Although he did not yet realize the significance of his discovery, Anderson's new breakfast food would make him a nationally known figure and the face of a Quaker Oats advertising campaign for almost a decade.
Explosions echoing from the laboratory of Alexander Pierce Anderson were just the first step in a process that brought fame to the botanist. His December 1901 experiment produced "puffed" rice, a starting point for a new cereal that was advertised as "Food Shot From Guns".
Anderson, born to Swedish immigrant parents on November 23, 1862, grew up in Spring Creek valley, ten miles from Red Wing, Minnesota. He seemed destined to follow his father into farming but changed course at twenty-seven, entering the University of Minnesota in 1890 to study agriculture.
Encouraged by his instructors, Anderson earned a masters degree in plant physiology. He then traveled to Munich, Germany, in June 1895 to study with leading botanists, earning a doctorate in plant physiology. A loan from cousin and future Minnesota governor John Lind helped fund the trip.
After completing his studies, Anderson accepted a position at Clemson Agricultural College and taught in South Carolina from 1896–1899. He met Lydia McDougall Johnson there, and they married in 1898.
At age thirty-eight, Anderson became a researcher at the New York Botanical Garden. The botanist believed that a tiny speck of free water would be found in the nucleus of a starch crystal. To prove this, he tried an experiment. He heated starch granules that were sealed in a glass tube until they showed signs of browning. Anderson theorized the water inside each grain would turn to steam. He suspected that a reaction within the starch would occur if he broke the tube and set the steam free. The scientist smashed the glass and the resulting explosion produced a stick of pure puffed starch.
Professor Anderson traveled to Minneapolis for a meeting set up by John Lind and W.C. Edgar, the prominent editor of Northwestern Miller magazine. Anderson knew he needed investors if he was to turn his puffing process into a useable product. A group of twenty wealthy businessman offered support. They gave him a laboratory at Minneapolis Steel and Machinery Company to experiment with his ideas.
Anderson took a four-by-thirty-six-inch gas pipe and sealed it with pipe heads on each end, one removable. He placed raw rice inside and rotated the cylinder while heating it. When a gauge showed what he felt was enough pressure, Anderson used a sledgehammer to knock loose the removable head. A shower of puffed rice burst from the device.
The Minneapolis backers, though interested, sold their shares of the process to Quaker Oats Company. Quaker gave Anderson a Chicago laboratory but took little interest in his discoveries.
Anderson finally captured his bosses' attention at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. He brought eight bronze, twenty-inch-long cylinders that appeared to many onlookers to be small cannons. Anderson loaded each "cannon" with six pounds of raw rice and applied heat.
When he uncapped them, a blizzard of expanded rice showered into a two-story-high, forty-foot-wide cage. Helpers bagged the rice and sold it for a nickel to delighted onlookers. By fair's end, Anderson's team had puffed more than 20,000 pounds of rice and sold a quarter-million packages.
Quaker Oats now took an enthusiastic interest in Anderson's ideas. In 1905, the company's American Cereal subsidiary sold his new product as a breakfast cereal called Puffed Rice. Two years later Quaker took over production advertising puffed cereal as "Prof. Anderson's Gift". Quaker added Puffed Wheat to their line, proclaiming the ready-to-eat cereal as "The Eighth Wonder of the World". Later, the puffed grain would be nicknamed "Food Shot From Guns".
Alexander and Lydia Anderson returned to the Red Wing area in 1915. Alexander built a laboratory on their Tower View Farm and continued working for Quaker until 1941. The Andersons raised four children while he conducted research. They also bought more land in the area; supported charities, notably the Vasa Children's Home; and endowed student scholarships. In 1943, Anderson passed away at the age of eighty.
Alexander P. Anderson Papers and Research Notebooks, 1855–2003, bulk 1890–1943
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: See especially Anderson's autobiography.
Angell, Madeline. Red Wing, Minnesota: Saga of a River Town. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1977.
Hedin, Lydia E., et al., Alexander P. Anderson, 1862–1943. West Saint Paul: Sexton Printing, Inc., 1977. http://www.andersoncenter.org/PDFs%20for%20site/AP%20Bio%20opt.pdf
Johnson, Frederick L. "Professor Anderson's 'Food Shot From Guns.'" Minnesota History 59, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 4–16.
Johnson, Frederick L. "Interview Notes," Lydia Hedin and Jean Chesley, July 21, 2001.
In December 1901, Alexander Anderson's scientific experiments lead to the discovery of "puffed rice", which will later become a popular breakfast cereal.