The Amazing, Accidental History of Bubble Wrap
The invention of bubble wrap revolutionized the shipping process and helped launch today’s billion-dollar Ecommerce industry—but it was never intended to. As part 2 of our series celebrating National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day this month (January 2021) , today we present you with the strange, surprising history of an iconic product that started life as a failed experiment.
In 1957, the Beat generation was just beginning to usher in an age of creative experimentation. Just like music and fashion, interior design was also getting a groovy new makeover, and it wasn’t unusual to see walls outfitted in vibrant patterns and natural materials such as bamboo. It’s amidst this context that inventors Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes set out to create a unique, textured wallpaper out a popular modern material, plastic. (Although prototypical plastic had existed since the late 1800s, new chemical technologies in the ‘60’s led to an explosion in plastic manufacturing throughout the decade.)
After placing two pieces of plastic shower curtain through a heat-sealing machine, the two men were surprised by the results: a single sheet of film with air bubbles trapped inside. While the wallpaper idea would never take off, the inventors knew that their product could be used for something. The trick would lie in finding out what.
Patents & Patience
Fielding and Chavannes promptly filed six patents for the manufacturing process they had used to create “Air Cap,” as they called it, as well as the lamination equipment and materials. They then put their heads together to brainstorm a useful application for the material. Though they came up with over 400 ideas, only one—greenhouse insulation—ultimately made it off the drawing board, and the reaction from consumers was lukewarm. For the time being, Bubble Wrap remained a solution in search of a problem.
As Fielding and Chavannes scratched their heads in New Jersey, up in Armonk, New York, a company called International Business Machines had just launched one of the world’s first mass-produced business computers. The delicate device, called the 1401, would need to be transported across the country without sustaining any damage, and the preferred packaging material of the time—balled-up newspaper—wasn’t quite up to scratch. Bubble Wrap was the answer to IBM’s problem. It was cheap; it was clean (newspaper often left ink smudges on package contents); and it adept at protecting the 1401’s fragile components. Once IBM—which, by 1960, was a powerful business entity—signed on, it seemed like only a matter of time until Bubble Wrap skyrocket to the top of the shipping market.
The Dunphy Era
As the ‘60s crept into the ‘70s, Bubble Wrap rose steadily in popularity and household usage. Despite this, though, and in spite of IBM’s seal of approval, Bubble Wrap still hadn’t turned a significant profit for its parent company, Sealed Air Corporation. Part of the problem lay in the interests of its founders: Chavannes and Fielding were engineers, not businessmen, and both were much more interested in making inventions than in selling them.
It was T.J. Dermot Dunphy, who became CEO of Sealed Air in 1971, who helped turn Bubble Wrap and its sister products into money-making machines. An entrepreneur by training, Dunphy helped Sealed Air stabilize its operation and diversify its product base. For example, he was able to expand the brand into the swimming pool industry, popularizing Bubble Wrap pool covers that were able to keep the water beneath them warm. By the time he left the firm in 2000, Dunphy had successfully built Sealed Air’s sales up to $3 billion annually. And Bubble Wrap, of course, had become a name so ubiquitous, most of today’s consumers aren’t even aware that it’s a brand.
Bubble Wrap Today
Today, Sealed Air has relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, and devotes most of its time and business to food product packaging. But even though Bubble Wrap provides less than 10% of Sealed Air’s revenue, that hasn’t stopped company leadership from considering a name change. “’Sealed Air’ does lack a bit of marketing pizazz,” company CEO Bill Hickey told Forbes in 2012. A name like “Bubble Wrap, Inc.” would no doubt bring instant name recognition.
Naming aside, there’s no doubt that Bubble Wrap is here to stay, as it’s now used to protect billions of products each year. It has also become a staple of modern society, repurposed as everything from wedding dresses to therapeutic treatment tools. Sadly, though, no one has tried using it for its first intended purpose, wallpaper—at least to our knowledge.
Order Bubble Wrap for Richmond, VA | Richmond Business Packaging Materials
Looking for bubble wrap or any other packaging material in Richmond, VA? Stop by SSI Packaging today! In addition to bubble wrap, we offer a wide range of packaging and shipping materials to keep your products safe, including cardboard boxes, foam cushioning, and packing tape. Feel free to stop by and see us, or check out our product inventory online.
Although, by January, you have doubtlessly taken down your Christmas lights and recycled your tree, the festivities aren’t over. That’s right, January 25th is National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, which Americans celebrate on the last Monday of January. We here at SSI Packaging love the bubbly stuff, even though we have to save the fun of popping it for our customers. In celebration of bubble wrap, here are 6 facts about it that may surprise you.
Bubble Wrap was originally marketed as wallpaper
Bubble Wrap’s original incarnation was, believe it or not, wallpaper. This isn’t so crazy when one considers the context of the late 1950s. As more and more household gadgets entered the public market, it became quite normal for designers to experiment with futuristic-seeming textures, materials, and patterns. In 1957, an engineer named Al Fielding and a Swiss inventor named Marc Chavannes teamed up to create a three-dimensional, raised wallpaper. To test their idea, they glued two shower curtains together, leaving pockets of air throughout. Ultimately, the wallpaper idea never took off…but luckily, the inventors managed to find a great buyer for their product, in a small manufacturing company called IBM.
Bubble Wrap® is a brand name
Like Chapstick, Kleenex, and Crock-Pots, Bubble Wrap is actually a brand that’s dominated the market so well and for so long that it’s become a ubiquitous term for all items like it. Fielding and Chavannes themselves filed several patents for Bubble Wrap in 1960, and created a company to sell it, called Sealed Air Corporation. More than 60 years later, Sealed Air is still going strong, and its star product has been embraced around the world as a lightweight, yet protective shipping material. Writers beware: if it doesn’t come from Sealed Air, it’s “laminated cushioning material.”
It has incredible protective qualities
But just how protective is it? In 2000, Sealed Air itself decided to answer that question via the rather unconventional method of dropping a pumpkin onto a bubble wrap landing pad. The 815-pound pumpkin, nicknamed “Gourdzilla”, survived the 35-foot fall completely intact—for a few seconds, anyway. “The pumpkin survived the drop,” said then-CEO William Hickey. “The problem is that it bounced.”
Popping Bubble Wrap is scientifically good for your health
For many people—or, dare we say, most people—popping Bubble Wrap ranks among one of life’s greatest pleasures. And beyond being fun, there’s some scientific evidence that it’s actually good for our mental health, too. In 1992, psychology professor Kathleen M. Dillon conducted a study wherein a trial group of undergraduate students were given two sheets to pop, while a control group remained pop-less. At the end of the study, the pop-ers reported that they felt more calm, energized, and alert than they had been before, while the pop-less control students reported feeling more or less the same. Dillon theorized that bubble wrap popping, like finger tapping and other sensory habits, might be a way anxious humans find a way to relieve muscle tension while simultaneously freezing in their tracks.
It sent a military base into lockdown
When most of us picture Bubble Wrap bubbles, we imagine the small, pill-sized kind which make relatively quiet pops. But Sealed Air manufactures its product in all kinds of sizes, and it was sandwich-bag-sized bubbles that ended up sending a New Mexico Air Force base into lockdown. After a civilian employee stomped on several “air pillows” in order to flatten them, another civilian mistook the sound for gunfire, and called 911. Base Director of Public Affairs, Eric Elliott, noted that the caller’s response was doubtlessly influenced by a mass shooting which had occurred in San Bernadino, California, earlier that week. In any case, all was well that ended well, and local authorities were appreciative for the unplanned emergency. “We got a good exercise out of it,” Elliot said.
Get bona-fide Bubble Wrap in Richmond, VA
It’s safe to say that no packaging material has brought more joy to consumers than Bubble Wrap. Whether you need a roll to protect some fragile materials during shipping, or to simply relieve some stress, SSI Packaging has what you need—real, authentic Bubble Wrap made by its original manufacturer, Sealed Air. We also offer a wide range of packaging and shipping materials such as cardboard boxes, bubble mailers, foam cushioning, and packing tape. If you live in or near Richmond, Virginia, stop by and see us, or check out our product inventory online.