Bubble Wrap begins

Nomination of Alfred W. Fielding to National Inventors Hall of Fame

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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.

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.

BubbleWrapThey 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.

Selected Resources

Atwell, Cabe. “Advances in Aluminum: New Twists on an Old Material” Machine Design, June 14, 2017. http://www.machinedesign.com/materials/advances-aluminum-new-twists-old-material

Barth, Linda. A History of Inventing in New Jersey: From Thomas Edison to the Ice Cream Cone. Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2013.

“Bubble Wrap(R) Cushioning Now Acknowledged by AP Stylebook.” PR Newswire, July 7, 2004, p.1 ABI/Inform

Burke, Monte. “Wrap Star.” Forbes, May 8, 2006, 108-109, ProQuest ABI/Inform.

Chavannes, Marc A., and Alfred W. Fielding. Apparatus for embossing and laminating materials. US Patent 3,208,898, filed March 9, 1960, and issued September 28, 1965.

Chavannes, Marc A., and Alfred W. Fielding. Bubble Wrap® Air Cellular Cushioning 1960. Polyethylene plastic, 29.8 x 29.8 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/90087

Chavannes, Marc A., and Alfred W. Fielding. Method and apparatus for making cellular material from thermoplastic sheets. US Patent 3,416,984, filed November 19, 1963, and issued December 17, 1968.

Dunphy, T.J. Dermot. Sealed Air Corporation: “Our Products Protect Your Products”: A Story of Modern Day Protective Packaging. Address delivered at a meeting of the Newcomen Society in North America held in New York City, May 13, 1982. New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1982.

Egan, Mary. “Sealed Air Corp.: Pop Icon.” Forbes, January 8, 2001, 140-41, ProQuest ABI/Inform.

Fielding, Alfred W. Method and apparatus for the manufacture of cellular and laminated materials. US Patent 3,586,565, filed December 4, 1968, and issued June 22, 1971.

Fielding, Alfred W., George T. Betram, Semyon Krislov, and Joel Askanazi. Method of packing objects and packing therefor. US Patent 4,584,822, filed March 7, 1984, and issued April 29, 1986.

Gardner, Ralph, Jr. “Novelty of bubble wrap never seems to get old; A look at the history behind the popular packing material and its maker, Sealed Air.” Wall Street Journal (Online), July 29, 2014. ProQuest ABI/Inform.

Graham, Ysenda Maxtone. “Pop Psychology: The Secrets of Bubble-wrap and Other Delicious Little Sensations.” Spectator 328, no. 9752 (2015): 24. Also published as “Bubble-wrap, berry-picking and the secret pleasures of destruction.” https://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/07/bubble-wrap-berry-picking-and-the-secret-pleasures-of-destruction/

Green, Joey, and Tim Nyberg. The Bubble Wrap Book. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

Harrison, Greg J. “Bubble-Wrap for Surgical Patients.” Journal of the Association of Avian Veterinarians 7, no. 4 (1993): 221.  JSTOR

Hiskey, Daven. “Happy Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day!” Mental Floss, Nov. 16, 2012. http://mentalfloss.com/article/13092/bubble-wrap-was-originally-supposed-be-wallpaper

“1993 Hall of Fame Inductees: Marc A. Chavannes and Alfred W. Fielding, Sealed Air Corporation, Saddle Brook.” The New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame http://www.njinvent.org/1993-awardees.html

Nur-Ain Nadir, Clint B Leclair, Matthew Fischer, and Michael Craddick. “The Bubble-Wrap Peritonsillar Abscess Model.” Journal of Education and Teaching in Emergency Medicine 2, no. 1 (2017): I7-I10. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/4cr2j0b9

Sealed Air Corporation. “Our History: An Improbable Beginning Leads to Decades of Innovation.” 2018.  https://sealedair.com/company/our-history

Seitz, Patrick. “Alfred Fielding Packaged His Invention Just Right Think New: His Bubble Wrap Pads the Delivery System.” Investor’s Business Daily (Los Angeles), August 05, 2011. ProQuest ABI/Inform

Tandoi, Valerie. (2004, Sep 01). “Sealed air — more than just bubble wrap.”New Jersey Business,50, 81, ProQuest ABI/Inform.

Author: hwfielding

A retired newspaper editor telling my own stories now.

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