Nomination of Alfred W. Fielding to National Inventors Hall of Fame
An invention that flopped as a wallpaper 60 years ago popped into public awareness soon after as the material IBM chose to protect its delicate super computers. It changed packing and shipping forever, and today its role in pop culture as a toy, stress reliever and even modern art is also celebrated every January on Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day.
In 1957, Marc A. Chavannes, a Swiss chemical engineer, approached mechanical engineer Alfred W. Fielding with the concept of creating an insulating, textured wallpaper by sealing two sheets of plastic together on a paper backing. Chavannes had been working on ways to emboss thermoplastic film as early as 1948, but that method resulted in a textured sheet without the air cushioning we know today.
Working out of a small garage across the street from the Fielding Machine Co. in Hawthorne, N.J., they started by trapping air between two shower curtains. The material was not practical as a wallpaper, but in creating it they had developed a method to vacuum-form a pattern of air bubbles between two sealed sheets of treated plastic using machines Fielding developed.
The next application they tried was greenhouse insulation, but that also was not a success. However, on a bumpy flight into Newark Airport one day, they hit upon the ultimate use for their product: protecting fragile items during shipping.
They were the first to envision what became an entirely new industry: protective packaging. Until then, products were shipped mostly in sawdust or discarded or shredded newspaper, paper wadding, and other dusty, abrasive and often inky paper products. Now they faced another challenge: persuading shippers to buy a stronger, cleaner packaging material instead of using essentially free recycled industrial waste.
They obtained their first patent for their invention in 1960, the same year they formed Sealed Air Corporation and took it public, raising $85,000 in an initial public offering. They registered their air cellular cushioning material under the trademarks AirCap, Sealed Air, and Bubble Wrap, as it is commonly known today.
It took time to convince manufacturers that the plastic product was a superior shipping material. In 1963, Sealed Air salesman Frederick W. Bowers persuaded IBM to ship its sensitive new 1401 variable word length computer using AirCap, making it the industry standard as sensitive high-tech products were beginning to come on the market.
They continued to refine their product; one drawback with the early version was that the bubbles did not retain the air well. In 1965, Fielding and his team developed a machine to apply an air-sealing coating that gave their product the distinctive pop-pop-pop we all know today. (It also distinguished authentic AirCap from imitators that came on the market soon after.)
The company marketed Bubble Wrap for a variety of other uses as well, including its own line of insulating pool covers. Hallmark sold colored sheets as a novelty wrapping paper. Another company used it as a cover to keep condensation from forming on toilet tanks. A maker of bubble gum packaged strips of the plastic bubbles with its product as a toy. (Popping Bubble Wrap is an irresistible activity and has long been used as a stress-reliever; today it is even simulated on smartphone apps.)
In 1971, the company developed and began selling protective shipping envelopes by laminating Bubble Wrap to paper, sparking a new, cheaper way of shipping small items safely. Former CEO T.J. Dermot Dunphy recalled that on his first day of work that year, he received a report listing 204 other potential uses for their product.
Sealed Air has sponsored STEM student contests to encourage young inventors. New uses are being discovered every year; recently medical schools have used the bubbles to help train doctors to lance abscesses.
Bubble Wrap is so much a part of world culture that it is among the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Many manufacturers worldwide now make similar products, prompting the Associated Press Stylebook to remind writers that Bubble Wrap is the registered trademark for this company’s plastic cushioning material.
Fielding and Chavannes obtained numerous trademarks and patents for Sealed Air, which today has expanded to an international corporation making many protective packaging products. Today the company holds or has pending more than 2,600 patents and 4,200 trademark registrations worldwide.
The company is a leader in the industry it founded, and its constantly expanding product line protects other products ranging from high-tech military equipment to refrigerated meats. In a post-Amazon society where at-home delivery of consumer products is the norm, Bubble Wrap is the pop heard round the world.
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