Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes for The Al

Bubble wrap calendar

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Pop! Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes invented bubble wrap in 1957. Pop! If that doesn’t deserve The Al, I don’t know what does. Pop! Pop!

If you’re like me, reading those little pops! gave you a vicarious thrill by bringing to mind all the times you’ve popped bubble wrap and loved it. It’s a visceral joy. If you consider both quality and quantity of enjoyment, there’s not a lot out there that beats bubble wrap.

Like many Al nominees, Fielding and Chavannes benefitted humanity through a combination of innovative thinking, entrepreneurial drive, guts, and some serenedipity. Working in a New Jersey garage, they were trying to invent a new kind of wallpaper – paper on the bottom where it sticks to the wall, plastic on the top where people see it. I can’t seem to determine whether they were actually envisioning something we would describe as “bubble wrap wallpaper” or if they were just trying to get a layer of plastic on top of a layer of paper, but Wikipedia says the product they were working on was “three dimensional wallpaper,” so hey, I say that’s good enough. It was bubble wrap wallpaper.

Bubble wrap wallpaper? Hey, it was 1957. But our intrepid heroes realized – to their credit – that bird wouldn’t fly. But they realized that their process for injecting air into plastic would provide a revolutionary packaging material. They founded the Sealed Air Corporation in 1960 and the rest is history.

Let’s look at bubble wrap as a helpful product first. Bubble Wrap is actually a name brand; Sealed Air Corporation holds the trademark. The product is manufactured in 52 countries and the company reported revenue of $4.2 billion in 2009. And then of course you have to add all the copycats. I can’t find information on the total amount of “plastic bubble packaging” used in the world, but it must be enormous.

Bubble wrap helps a lot of people do a lot of things. In addition to keeping your great-grandmother’s china safe during a move, a variety of special kinds of bubble wrap serve industry (and thus all of us) in a number of ways. For example, they make a special anti-static bubble wrap for shipping computer chips.

But you don’t want to hear about any of that. I know what you want. Pop!

Just add up all the pleasure everyone has ever gotten from popping those bubbles. Just the other day my daughter got a birthday present in the mail, and we had to get her to stop popping the bubbles before she would open the present!

Here’s a good test of the value of bubble wrap. You can buy hand-held, key fob sized bubble wrap simulators. You pop the little bubbles and they reinflate. And these days, bubble wrap has gone cloud. That’s right – there’s an app for that.

What makes popping bubble wrap so fun? Is it about power – the thrill of destruction? Maybe for some, but I doubt that’s the main attraction. Is it the excitement of steadily building the pressure, not knowing when the threshold will be crossed, until suddenly pop! – essentially a hand-held roller coaster or scary movie. That’s more plausible. But people who don’t care for roller coasters or scary movies – me, for example – seem to get as much out of bubble wrap as everyone else. In the end, I think it’s a mystery. Why do lots of people like chocholate and few people like anchovies? They just do.

So in addition to sheer quality and quantity of enjoyment, there’s another reason bubble wrap embodies The Al. It’s an improvement to the human condition that no central planner or philosopher could ever have dreamed up. It reminds us that at the deepest level, the universe is the way it is simply because it is that way. That doesn’t mean the universe is irrational or amoral at its core; it means that the deepest mind and morality of the universe are what they are independent of whether we understand or approve. And so also with beauty, which is the third of the three classical Aristotelian transcendent experiences (the good, the true and the beautiful) – including the beauty of popping bubble wrap.


5 Responses to Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes for The Al

  1. Alsadius says:

    The very first website I ever visited, way back in 1997, was a bubble wrap simulator.

  2. Ann in L.A. says:

    Extra-strong bubble wrap is also used by pool owners to heat their pools using only the sun:

    They work by letting the solar light and heat into the pool, but inhibiting evaporation that can quickly cool the pool back down. It is essentially a blanket for a pool. It extends our pool season by a month in the spring and a month in the fall.

  3. […] weeks ago I introduced HT to the Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award. This year I nominated Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, who invented bubble […]

  4. Google says:

    Sooner or later, Google will find all new spam methods.

    In addition, the observing surgeons could transmit their comments to
    the operating surgeon, who could read them on the Google Glass monitor.
    But it seems Memorial Day wasn’t important enough to Google.

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