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Object Lessons

Bubble Wrap

Spring 2020 | Volume 26 |  Issue 2

When American soldiers returned from World War II, the GI Bill helped them afford an education and also purchase houses. The country boomed, not only with new babies, but also with new homes being built. 

The 1950s saw a shift from more traditional decor to families looking to the future, with space exploration on the horizon and futuristic movies and television influencing style choices.

By that time, wallpaper had evolved from a luxury only the rich could afford to a more affordable commodity anyone could use to easily and quickly spruce up their walls. In 1957, Alfred W Fielding and Marc Chavannes wanted to create a high-end plastic wallpaper.  The main draw would be that the wallpaper was textured and would add a pop pun totally intended) of fun to the walls.

In Fielding's garage, they sealed two plastic sheets together, creating air pockets trapped inside, and put a paper backing on it. Unfortunately, the design wasn't as popular they had hoped, and the two inventors had this amazing material but no use for it. Originally, it was known as Air Cap, and Fielding and Chavannes formed the company Sealed Air to market it.
They first tried selling it to greenhouses as a sort of cheap insulation, but it was difficult to market plastic for walls. Luckily, another futuristic innovation would help them use this material.

IBM premiered its new 1401 variable-word-length computer in 1959, but there was concern about the difficulty of shipping the new hardware without damaging it using the traditional shipping materials of newspaper, straw or horsehair.
Frederick Bowers, a marketer at Sealed Air, pitched the material to IBM, and finally a use was found for Bubble Wrap. (“Bubble Wrap,” by the way, is the trademarked name.) Sealed Air began expanding its product offerings to more shipping materials, such as envelopes made with Bubble Wrap padding, which became especially popular in the 1980s with the popularity of the floppy disk. (The first ones were actually floppy, eight inches wide and later 5 1/4 inches in width, and easily damaged.)

The days of sealing two plastic sheets together were long gone, but, in 1957, a machine was made to produce the material with the bubbles evenly spaced. The machines used today are not that different, although there are more of them and they are much bigger than the original, which was the size of a moderately-priced sewing machine at the time.

The materials used now are more environmentally friendly, but still remain strong enough to reuse. However, newer shipping material is always being explored by companies like Amazon who ship huge quantities of items, since big rolls and sheets of Bubble Wrap take up a lot of storage space.

One question that comes up a lot with Bubble Wrap is about how to properly use it to package items-with the bubbles out or in. The recommended way is having the bubbles facing inward to better pad the item being wrapped. It also helps keep small parts in place more effectively.

But what many consider Bubble Wrap's best quality is the stress relief that comes from popping it. And that stress relief isn't just a theory. It was shown in a 1992 study that subjects who were given Bubble Wrap to pop were found to be more relaxed and alert afterward. A few theories exist as to why, including one in which our primitive brain associates the sensation with crushing ticks or insects, but the more plausible (and less disgusting) theory is that humans are drawn to tactile sensations, and using worry beads or fidget toys, or popping Bubble Wrap, can help us release that stress.
Scaled Air licenses a calendar version of Bubble Wrap, in which each day is printed on a piece of paper underneath Bubble Wrap and consumers can pop a bubble a day.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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