One day, soon, you might be walking in your local Mall (Do people actually still go to Malls?) and see a super-space age ice cream stand bellowing clouds of misty smoke, and selling cyro-cream or some other commercial name for the product. It will be ice cream with a gelato-type of consistency, it will be delicious, and it will be prepared by cooling the ice cream mix down with liquid nitrogen. A patent for such a machine was awarded in late 2008.
When a patent is filed, the lawyers need to do a literature search to make sure your invention is original, and to provide the background. So there, in the reference list for this patent, you can see a paper written by me.
In 1994, after reading in Scientific American about two physicist-chefs experimenting with super-cooling ice cream mix with liquid nitrogen and getting creamy consistency with micro-crystals, among other culinary oddities, we figured this would make a more fun liquid nitrogen demo for kids than the usual frozen bananas and tennis balls. We were also pretty sure other people read Scientific American and pictures like this would not go unnoticed. The race was on!
So we tried this method out during a summer program: testing out some recipes, using pre-made mixes, and having kids stirring up their own ice cream in Styrofoam cups as we added liquid nitrogen – all to their gleeful delight. We lickety-quick wrote it up and sent it off to the Journal of Chemical Education; and while we have no idea how many people might have been thinking about it, we managed to end up with what will always be the original journal reference to “liquid nitrogen ice cream.”
I’d (pretty much) say all of the people who do chemistry demos read this journal, and it (pretty much) spread around the world like a virus. Within a few years, making “Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream” became a staple of many outreach and demonstration activities. And after a generation, the chances of people knowing about this story are (pretty much) lost to time.
Over the years, I’ve asked people who were doing the demo: do you know the original reference to this? No one ever does. And when I tell them, they tend to think it’s impossible – this must have been around longer than that. Well, it wasn’t, but I was not about to do a literature review on “liquid nitrogen ice cream” to prove my case. Now I can point to the patent, because those lawyers did the work for me.
And what do I get from all this? The only thing that matters, in the end: bragging rights.
So there. Neener-neener.