Bubble Wrap was Originally Designed to Be Used as Wallpaper

Daven Hiskey 5
Today I found out bubble wrap was originally designed to be used as wallpaper.

Bubble Wrap was invented by two engineers Al Fielding and Swiss inventor Marc Chavannes in Hawthorne, N.J. in 1957.  The two were not, however, trying to make a product to be used as packaging material. Rather, they were trying to create a textured wallpaper.  They started out by sealing two shower curtains together in such a way that it would capture air bubbles which would make the textured appearance for their wallpaper.  Needless to say, this wallpaper idea didn’t sell too well.

Not to be deterred, they then set about finding another use for their product.  The alternate use they came up with was to use it as greenhouse insulation.  While bubble wrap by itself does create somewhat of an insulating effect, this idea didn’t pan out popularly either.

It was three years after the initial creation of Bubble Wrap that Frederick W. Bowers, a marketer at Sealed Air, which makes Bubble Wrap, finally came up with the perfect use for their product.  On October the 5, 1959, IBM announced their new 1401 variable word length computer.  Bowers got the idea that Bubble Wrap could be used as a good packaging material to protect the computer while it was being shipped.  He then pitched the idea to IBM and demonstrated Bubble Wrap’s protective abilities.  His demonstration went over well and IBM began purchasing Bubble Wrap to protect their 1401 and other fragile product they sold and shipped.

From those humble beginnings, the company has grown to annual sales of around $4 billion with a net profit of around $255 million.  For reference, about 10% of Sealed Air’s revenue comes from Bubble Wrap, so around $400 million worth of Bubble Wrap is sold annually.

Bonus Facts:

  • One common misconception about Bubble Wrap is that it is created using machinery that inflates and then seals each and every bubble.  In fact, it’s made by trapping air bubbles in between two sheets of plastic as they are heated and passed between rollers.
  • In its lifetime, the IBM managed to sell or lease about double the number of 1401′s it projected, a whopping 10,000 units, 5,000 of which were sold or leased in its first five weeks on the market.  This might not sound like much, but by the mid-1960s about half of all the computers in the world were the IBM 1401. This computer leased for $2,500 a month (about $18,000 a month today).
  • One of the more interesting aspects of the 1401 was that it was a decimal based computer, rather than binary like most all computers today.
  • One of the downsides to Bubble Wrap has always been how much space it takes up during shipping and storage, for customers who are just buying the Bubble Wrap.  In order to get around this problem, one of the dreams of the original inventors was that they’d some day be able to create a Bubble Wrap that customers could self inflate, as needed.  So that when they purchased it from the manufacturer, it could be shipped as thin flat sheets of plastic, without the bubbles.  Once they assigned some engineers to the problem in the early 1990s, it took about a decade to finally work out the kinks, but Sealed Air now offers such a Bubble Wrap product.  The method they came up with was to extrude tiny pellets of polyethylene into sheets, which are then heated.  The tiny beads of polyethylene then flatten to form extremely strong polymer sheets with rows of un-inflated bubbles which are connected in lines.  Customers can then lease a special machine ($500 per year) from Sealed Air which connect to one end of the sheets and inflate all the lines and then seal off the opening.
  • This new customer inflatable Bubble Wrap is about 40 times cheaper than the traditional bubble wrap in terms of shipping costs to the customers buying the Bubble Wrap.
  • You can tell if some of the Bubble Wrap you have uses these inflatable Bubble Wrap sheets if you can’t pop individual bubbles on the sheets.  Popping one bubble will just pop all the bubbles on a line.
  • While originally being used primarily for packaging for electronics equipment, today the vast majority of Bubble Wrap made is used for food packaging.
  • Sealed Air continually does extreme demonstrations showing how much better Bubble Wrap performs at protecting fragile items. In one such demonstration, they dropped an 815 pound pumpkin from a height of 35 feet onto layers of Bubble Wrap.  The pumpkin survived the fall without a scratch.
  • Among its many uses, Bubble Wrap can be used as a cheap burglar alarm  by placing large bubbled bubble wrap on the floor in front of your door.  Another zany use, used by teenage girls the word over, is as a good stuffing for one’s bra. ;-)
  • The amount of Bubble Wrap produced by Sealed Air annually is enough to wrap the entire Earth (at the equator) with Bubble Wrap about ten times.
  • One major competitor to Bubble Wrap in the packaging industry popped up around five years after Bubble Wrap, “packing peanuts”.  These are typically made from pure polystyrene resin.
  • The color of packaging peanuts usually indicates what it is exactly made of.  Green, for instance, indicates that it’s made from recycled polystyrene.  Pink means that it is an anti-static version of packaging peanuts.  White means that it’s at least 70% virgin polystyrene resin.
  • A new kind of packaging peanut has come on the market in the last couple decades which is actually edible.  These are made from organic based materials, such as corn starch, rather than petroleum based.  They are also completely biodegradable and can’t retain an electrostatic charge, which can be useful in shipping electronics equipment.

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5 Comments »

  1. Michael July 28, 2013 at 3:35 am - Reply

    actually it is a great idea. If the materials were strong enough it would be a cushion for kids playing ruff and a wall protection. It would also provide some insulation, but best of all it would block a lot of noise. .

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