Did you know that BUBBLE WRAP® was the result of a misfired wallpaper invention?
Alfred Fielding was co-inventor of BUBBLE WRAP® with his business partner Marc Chavannes, a Swiss chemist. They were trying to create a textured wallpaper in 1957 that would appeal to a new generation. They put two pieces of plastic shower curtain through a heat-sealing machine but were disappointed—at first—by the results: a sheet of film with trapped air bubbles.
However, the inventors did not totally dismiss their failure. They were granted the first of several patents for the process and equipment of embossing and laminating materials, then started thinking of uses: more than 400, in fact. One—greenhouse insulation—made it off the drawing board, but ultimately was about as successful as textured wallpaper. The product was actually tested in greenhouses, but it proved ineffective. The best use was to become the packing material we now know as bubble wrap.
To continue developing their unusual product, which was branded BUBBLE WRAP®, Fielding and Chavannes founded Sealed Air Corp. in 1960. It wasn’t until they decided the next year to use it as packaging material that they found success. From the start, BUBBLE WRAP® brand original cushioning was truly revolutionary both as a product and as a value proposition. It could reduce total packaging cost by using less material, reduce package size and weight and reduce loss from damage. In other words, BUBBLE WRAP® brand original cushioning promoted sustainability long before it was fashionable.
IBM had recently introduced the 1401 unit—considered the Model-T of the computer industry—and needed a way of protecting the delicate device during transit. “It was the answer to IBM’s problems,” says Chad Stephens, vice president of innovation and development for Sealed Air’s Product Care Division. “They could ship their computers without damage. That opened the door for a lot of other businesses to start using BUBBLE WRAP®.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Small packaging companies quickly embraced the new technology. To them, BUBBLE WRAP® was the answer to everything. Previously, the best way to protect an item during shipping was to surround it with screwed up newsprint. It was messy since ink from the old newspapers often rubbed off on the product and those handling it. Plus, it really wasn't great on protection!
Sealed Air began to grow as BUBBLE WRAP® caught on. The product evolved into different shapes, sizes, strengths and thicknesses for expanded uses: big and little bubbles, wide and short sheets, large and short rolls. All the while more people were discovering the joy of popping those air-filled pockets.
Still, the company wasn’t turning a profit. That’s when T.J. Dermot Dunphy became CEO in 1971. He helped build annual sales from $5 million in his first year to $3 billion in 2000 when he left the firm.
“Marc Chavannes was a visionary and Al Fielding was a first-class engineer,” says Dunphy, who at 86 years young still works every day at his private equity investment and management firm, Kildare Enterprises. “But neither wanted to run the company. They just wanted to work on their inventions.”
An entrepreneur by training, Dunphy helped Sealed Air stabilize its operation and diversify its product base. He even expanded the brand into the swimming pool industry. For several years, BUBBLE WRAP® pool covers were extremely popular. With large air pockets, the covers helped trap solar rays and retain heat so pool water remained warm, although these bubbles weren’t poppable. The firm eventually sold the line.
Barbara Hampton, Alfred Fielding’s daughter-in-law, who coincidentally is a patent information specialist, is quick to point out how patents enabled her father-in-law and his partner to do what they did. In all, they were granted six patents for BUBBLE WRAP®, most of which dealt with the process for embossing and laminating plastic and the necessary equipment. In fact, Marc Chavannes received two earlier patents for thermoplastic film, but probably didn’t have poppable bubbles in mind when he did. “A patent provides a creative person with the opportunity to reap the rewards of his ideas,” Hampton says.
Today, Sealed Air is a Fortune 500 company with sales of $4.5 billion in 2017 and 15,000 employees serving customers in 122 countries. Originally located in New Jersey, the business moved its world headquarters to North Carolina in 2016. It produces and sells several products, including Cryovac, a thin plastic that is shrink-wrapped around food and other items. Sealed Air even offers an airless BUBBLE WRAP® that is less expensive to ship to customers. “It’s an inflatable version,” Stephens says. “Instead of large rolls of air, we sell rolls of tightly wrapped film with a mechanical unit that adds the air when needed. It’s a lot more efficient.”
The history that lies behind these strangely satisfying, fun-popping bubbles is rather fascinating - whoever knew!?