Inside the Quest for Perfect Taffy

There's nothing like taking a stroll on the boardwalk to see taffy being pulled in the window of a candy shop. But have you ever wondered if there was a more efficient way to get the same result?

Jean-Luc Thiffeault took his curiosity to the next level. In writing "A mathematical history of taffy pullers," Thiffeault investigates the folding patterns to find which machines make taffy with the best mathematical efficiency. As a researcher with a background in topology -- the study of the geometry of mathematical structures -- he was interested in the shapes that a rope of taffy made when folded back on itself dozens of times by a taffy pulling machine.



The craziest part of this though, is that until the 20th century, taffy was pulled entirely by hand. In a patent dispute over the invention of the machine, former President Howard Taft presided as the Chief Justice on the Supreme Court. "Until the beginning of this century," Taft wrote, "candy was pulled only by hand. It required much strength. Candy pullers were hard to get. The work was strenuous, and produced perspiration and uncleanliness. It was done with the bare hands, and it was impossible to avoid danger from eczema and abrasions of the skin of the hands. It was neither appetizing nor sanitary."

It's no wonder that as a result, there were 200 patents for taffy pullers in America. These taffy pullers ranged in complexity and structure. However, Thiffeault found that these new machines were nowhere near as effective as the traditional model of hand pulling.


Well, you know what they say, if you want something done right, you've gotta do it yourself. So Thiffeault made his own taffy puller that was just as good as the traditional process. "Making candy is really difficult," he told the Washington Post. The process was "a revelation into how complicated it is."