As the 3D craze hit movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, inventors Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes were banking on all of us living in homes with 3D wallpaper. Their company, Sealed Air Corporation, was formed to make a wall covering made of two sheets of plastic laminate with air bubbles trapped between. Unfortunately, interior decorators never quite saw the appeal, and 3D wallpaper didn’t catch on.
Like all inventors, Fielding and Chavannes adapted. If people weren’t going to use their creation inside, maybe there’s use outside. It worked. For a short period, their lightweight and clear creation was used as insulation for greenhouses. But the pair realized the market for bubbly greenhouses was limited. However, as a packing material…this invention was golden.
Bubble Wrap® is the signature brand sold by Sealed Air Corporation, and it revolutionized shipping. It meant items could be shipped in smaller, lighter-weight packaging, and it was remarkably reliable. People could now ship things with a high degree of confidence that they would make it to their destination.
The simple idea of capturing air in such a way that it would give enough to not be rigid, but firm enough to offer tough protection, blossomed into a wide industry that changed the way things were packaged forever. Today, the people who brought you Bubble Wrap® are now behind the sealed plastic on a wheel of cheese. They make ostomy bags used in hospitals. They make packaging designed to keep food cold. And they’ve developed machines that many companies use to automate packing and shipping.
Dr. Kathleen Dillon, psychology professor emerita at Western New England College studied this very thing in the 90s. Her theory was that popping Bubble Wrap® is similar to carrying a smooth-surfaced stone. This practice is still done in much of Asia and is often called a “worry stone” or a “fingering piece.” Having something for your hands and fingers to do, as Catholics do with the beads of the Rosary, appears to produce a calming effect. Dr. Dillon conducted a study that demonstrated students who got to pop two sheets of Bubble Wrap® felt calmer, more awake, and more alert than those who didn’t.
While Bubble Wrap® is a trademark of a product specifically made by Sealed Air, it is quickly joining a list of brands whose name has become genericized by the public, much like ChapStick, Kleenex, and Yo-Yo.
To hear more about the art of engineering, sign up for our newsletter.