Sorry to burst your bubble: The inventors of Bubble Wrap didn’t set out to make wallpaper. A Sealed Air Corporation spokesman once told that story to the Associated Press. And it’s true, as far as it goes.
But the back story starts 20 years earlier, with the Great Depression and the events leading up to World War II. It starts with Marc Chavannes, a Swiss banker and diplomat whose family fortune dissolved in the Depression.
Chavannes, then in his 30s, retrained as a chemical engineer. He and a partner filed patents in Switzerland, France, and Germany for waterproofing textiles with latex or other coatings. His goal: a lightweight waterproof fabric that would “breathe.”
A synthetic material that could be impermeable to water but still comfortable would have been valuable to the Nazis. Chavannes fled Geneva to the U.S. just after Germany invaded Poland in 1939.
Fielding, about 20 years his junior, graduated that same year from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He worked as an engineer and planner for a metal job shop during World War II. After the war, he was plant manager of a large machine shop just outside New York City. As plant manager, he would have been responsible for designing and building machines for customers.
That is probably where the two inventors met.
Chavannes settled in New York City, and later in the suburbs, and continued his work in synthetic fibers and fabrics. He obtained several patents for waterproof fibers, but the patents did not include detail for making the product. Meanwhile, chemical giant DuPont, which had launched nylon and artificial latex, continued to make and market its own artificial textiles including Teflon, Orlon, Dacron, and Mylar.
Someone, possibly Fielding, realized that making a waterproof fabric from synthetic threads would be impossible because no matter how tightly woven the textile, there would always be the problem of seepage. They shifted their focus to making textured plastic sheets. Each step in this process — embossing a pattern, perforating the sheets, and eventually laminating two sheets together into a single product — brought them closer to Chavannes’ goal.
Finally, in 1955, Chavannes filed a patent for a “Fabric and Method of Manufacture” that solved the problem of a breathable, waterproof fabric by layering two sheets with different perforation patterns. Air could pass through but water couldn’t.
The two-layer process of making a material was probably what attracted the attention of the designer who requested a textured wallpaper. But it took time to research, develop, and build the machines to make a specific product. At that point, the inventors were turning out patents for new processes and machines about once a year.
Their next patent said the material they created was suitable for a number of different products, including wallpaper. By then, though, the interior designer had lost interest.
Despite its versatility, the new product never got much traction in the marketplace. Eventually, though, they hit on the idea of a cushioning material.