If you are a Gene Wolfe fan, you've likely heard that he had a hand in the invention of Pringles. Maybe you've also heard he is the face of Pringles. How much (of anything) is really true?
Gene Wolfe is arguably America's finest
science-fiction and fantasy author. But early on, he was a plant engineer at Proctor & Gamble and was involved in the creation of Pringles. Strangely (unless you've read his books), he eventually grew to closely resemble the Julius Pringles character on the can. So did Gene Wolfe invent Pringles? And is he the face of Julius Pringles? Let's start at the beginning.
Gene Wolfe, born Eugene Luther Wolfe, was a renowned American science fiction and fantasy author. He was born on May 7, 1931, in New York City, to Emerson Leroy Wolfe and Mary Olivia Ayers.
Wolfe's childhood was marked by difficulty. "I was an only child and I was constantly sick. I had infantile paralysis as a small child (I was so small I don't remember having it) and I was allergic to lots of things, like wheat and chocolate." Despite the challenges he faced, Wolfe found solace in reading, which sparked his lifelong passion for literature and storytelling.
In his teenage years, Wolfe developed an interest in writing and began creating his own stories. He attended Texas A&M University but dropped out in his junior year and was drafted. Wolfe served in the Korean War as a combat engineer. His experiences during the war shaped his worldview and provided further inspiration for his storytelling.
Upon his return from Korea, he transferred to the University of Houston, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. Wolfe's engineering background would later influence his science fiction works, imbuing them with a sense of technical precision.
After completing his studies, Wolfe pursued a career in industrial engineering, eventually securing a job with Procter & Gamble (P&G) in Chicago.
Wolfe's tenure at P&G began in 1956 when he was hired as a layout engineer. He worked in various roles within the company, including as a technical writer and editor. His time at P&G exposed him to different aspects of corporate life, which would later inform his acclaimed novel, "The Book of the New Sun," a complex and multilayered work set in a distant future.
Which brings us to the genesis of Pringles.
The creation of Pringles potato snacks was driven by a desire to innovate and offer a unique product in the snack food market. While traditional potato chips are made from sliced and fried potatoes, Pringles took a different approach to achieve a distinctive shape, texture, and flavor.
The concept for Pringles originated in the 1950s when a team of scientists at Procter & Gamble (P&G), led by Fredric J. Baur, was tasked with developing a new kind of potato chip. The objective was to create a chip that had uniformity in shape, flavor, and texture, which would result in a more consistent snacking experience.
According to Pringles, "Fredric Baur started working on Pringles back in the mid-1950s, when he was looking to find an alternative to potato chips, which were often greasy, stale and broken. He spent more than two years on them, and is the person who designed their unique shape (known as a hyperbolic paraboloid, like a saddle -- but more on this later) and the tubular can they were packaged in. He was so proud of his work that when he passed away he was actually buried in a can of Pringles."
Gene Wolfe has a slightly different recollection, which I am inclined to believe, that Pringles were a passion project bought by P&G as a solution to a perceived problem in the market. "They got the rights to Pringles from this German [Fredric Baur] who basically had invented it. And he had invented the dough-making process and you fried it in deep fat and so on."
The next advancement was likely the role of Alexander Liepa, described on the Pringles website like this: "Alexander Liepa built on what Fredric started, working to improve the taste of Pringles® potato crisps. He was eventually rewarded for his efforts by being credited as the inventor on the Pringles patent."
P&G's team experimented with various potato compositions and processing methods. They eventually came up with a solution that involved using dehydrated potato flakes instead of sliced potatoes. The potato flakes were mixed with water, cornstarch, and other ingredients to form a dough-like substance. This dough was then pressed onto a mold that gave the chips their unique shape and stacked neatly together.
The reason behind this distinctive shape was twofold. First, the curved, saddle-like shape of Pringles chips allowed for a more efficient use of packaging space. The uniform shape allowed the chips to stack tightly, reducing breakage and enabling more chips to fit into each canister. Second, the shape offered a consistent snacking experience with a uniform texture and flavor.
To achieve the desired shape, a hyperbolic paraboloid, precise calculations and measurements were required. Computer-aided design software allowed the team to model and manipulate geometric shapes more accurately and efficiently than traditional manual drafting methods. They used CAD technology to fine-tune the shape and ensure its structural integrity.
By leveraging computer-aided design, the team could experiment with different curves, angles, and dimensions to achieve the desired shape that would provide both structural strength and stacking efficiency. This process helped optimize the shape of Pringles to maximize the number of chips that could fit into the iconic cylindrical canister while maintaining their unique curved form.
It's worth noting that the use of computers in the development of Pringles was a significant advancement at the time. And it is difficult to envision the way computers were used, without video workstations we would take for granted. But this new technology facilitated precise calculations and allowed for greater control over the design process, resulting in the creation of the distinct hyperbolic paraboloid shape that is now synonymous with Pringles.
An even more interesting note on the shape was given in an interview with Gene, and I don't see it repeated elsewhere but it's very clever. "The neat thing about Pringles is you can put them on a vibratory conveyor. These little saddle shapes. And they will march along on the vibratory conveyor until they're stopped. And when they're stopped, they'll up-end like this and stack themselves. And all you have to do is have a mechanical claw like that reaches down and picks up the stack when it gets so big and puts it in the can. And you don't have to worry about stacking the damn things. Just give them a little help and they'll stack themselves."
Speaking of Gene, this is his part in the process. Pringles themselves tell us that "Gene Wolfe is credited with being the person to invent the machine that makes Pringles potato crisps."
As Gene put it, "We needed to make them, you know, a thousand a minute to make any money off of it. And I was a design engineer on the cooker for Pringles. So I was the guy that cooked them. Lynn Hooper, who was my office mate, rolled out the dough and cut the shapes and deposited it on my cooker. And I ran it through the cooker and then somebody else picked them off and and ran them through the salter."
The dough-formed chips are cooked, flavored, and packaged in the iconic cylindrical containers to maintain their shape and protect them from breakage. The packaging also helped to preserve the freshness and crispness of the chips. It is claimed by some that Mr. Wolfe advocated for a thicker pringle for strength, but I have thus far failed to unearth a source of the story. But Pringles has made thicker versions of its crisps at times.
Another side note from Gene, regarding the cooking process: "When they come out of the salter, when they've just been cooked and they come hot out of the salter, they are unspeakably delicious. The tendency is just to stand there at the salter and eat Pringles."
As delicious as they are, the introduction of Pringles in 1967 was met with mixed reactions. Consumers were accustomed to traditional sliced potato chips. However, Pringles gradually gained popularity due to their unique shape, consistent quality, and the convenience of the packaging. They appealed to consumers who appreciated the novelty and enjoyed the uniformity of the chips.
It's worth noting that the processing method used for Pringles differs significantly from traditional potato chip production. This distinction has led to debates about whether Pringles, made of about 40% dehydrated potato, should be classified as "potato chips" at all. In some countries, including the United States, Pringles are labeled as "potato crisps" or "potato snacks" to reflect their distinct manufacturing process.
In summary, Pringles were created to offer consumers a unique and consistent snacking experience. The dough-based method allowed for a uniform shape, texture, and flavor, while the packaging provided convenience and protection for the chips. Despite the initial skepticism, Pringles has become a popular and recognizable brand in the snack food industry.
Playing no small part in that recognizability is Julius Pringles himself, the iconic mascot associated with Pringles snacks.
The Pringles mascot was created in 1967 by Louis R. Dixon, an artist and commercial illustrator. Dixon was hired by Procter & Gamble (P&G), the company behind Pringles, to develop a character that would serve as the face of the brand. The goal was to create a memorable and recognizable character to enhance the Pringles brand identity.
Julius Pringles is depicted as a cartoonish and friendly-looking character. He is portrayed as a round-headed man with a distinctive mustache, usually seen wearing a bow tie, a round spectacles-shaped headpiece, and a bowler hat. His face is adorned with a wide smile. The design of Julius Pringles has remained relatively consistent over the years, maintaining his iconic appearance.
And where did the name 'Pringles' come from? This point is unclear, and of course there is speculation about it. There are two probable choices though. The first was that it refers to Pringle Drive, where two P&G marketing employees lived in Ohio. The second, and most likely origin, is that it is an homage to Mark Pringle, a man who patented a similar "Method and apparatus for processing potatoes" in 1937, which was granted in 1942. And the name, like Mark's surname, was singular, and the logo was originally "Pringle's" possessive.
While the basic design of Julius Pringles has remained largely unchanged, there have been some subtle modifications and updates to the character over time. These changes aimed to modernize the mascot and align with contemporary design trends while preserving the brand's recognition.
One notable change occurred after 1996 when the character's face was given a slight update. The eyebrows were raised, and the eyes were made rounder to give Julius Pringles a more expressive and approachable look.
In recent years, Pringles has introduced different variations of Julius Pringles to reflect different flavors or promotions. These variations often involve dressing Julius Pringles in attire related to a specific theme or featuring elements that represent a particular flavor, such as wearing sunglasses for a BBQ-flavored promotion or a Santa hat for a holiday edition.
In the end, Julius Pringles became the foundation of the Pringles brand identity. The character's friendly and recognizable appearance has helped to establish a strong association with the product and has played a significant role in the marketing and promotion of Pringles snacks.
And as Pringles says, "[Gene] bears a striking resemblance to Julius Pringles."
Barring any time looping, however, it is unlikely Gene himself had any impact on the design of the mascot. The mascot was born in 1967, but Gene's mustachioed metamorphosis came about years later. Pictured is Gene Wolfe in the eighties. His recognizable mustache and resemblance to the logo is more possibly the other direction, Gene imitating Julius. But most likely just coincidence.
Obviously all of this is subject to change, based on the integrity of the memories of the participants and the linearity of time, Mandela Effect, etc. Particularly interesting was the result when ChatGPT was asked about Gene's work on Pringles. The strange answer was that there was no connection at all. For a nearly omniscient-seeming leviathan of knowledge, it was interesting how sure ChatGPT seemed of its answer.
In summary, ChatGPT notwithstanding -- and in this universe -- I think we finally have definitive answers.
Did Gene Wolfe invent Pringles? No, not really. But he was one of a small number of key people responsible for getting them to market successfully. "Over the years, hundreds of people have had a hand in making Pringles the delicious snack they are today, but credit for their creation goes to three people: Fredric Baur, Alexander Liepa, and Gene Wolfe."
Is Julius Pringles Gene Wolfe? Again, not really. The Pringles mascot was designed by Louis Dixon long before Gene assumed his later, iconic appearance. And I've never seen Gene Wolfe in a bowtie. Maybe Gene really did just have the good taste to emulate Julius's look.
In a further (appropriate) twist, Julius Pringles doesn't even exist. Not as a person, nor as a mascot. The character was called Mr. Pringles, or probably just Mr. Pringle (as shown in the original possessive form in the logo), for decades. Until a Wikipedia user decided to name him in the early 2000s, and the name stuck enough to not be erased, and was assumed to be real after the sale of Pringles to Diamond Foods in 2011. So 'Julius' was literally conjured into reality.
Reportedly, the name came from the fact that the jokers responsible were watching Julius Peppers play football at the time of the naming brainstorm. Much of this comes from a twitter thread but is supported by the timing of Wikipedia edits.
So if you're getting disoriented and wondering what's true, or even real, well, welcome to enjoying Gene Wolfe. You will not want for wonder. But most importantly, do freshly salted, hot Pringles sound good to try? That answer is clearly, simply, yes.