A Brief History of Bubble Wrap® – a Pop Sensation

From the early days of shipping using barrels transported by ships and paper-wrapped packages tied in string, shipping has come a long way. Nothing, however, has become as iconic as Bubble Wrap®. Now used for everything from wholesale pallet shipping to protecting Christmas presents, these plastic sheets have some a long way.

From Wallpaper to World Sensation

As unlikely as it may seem, Bubble Wrap® started out as wallpaper. Two inventors, Alfred W. Fielding and Marc Chavannes, came up with the idea in 1957 to create a wall covering using plastic sheets with pockets of air between them. This was the height of wall paper’s revival and modern, space aged designs were all the range. This particular product, however, never quite caught on as a wallpaper.

While their textured wallpaper wasn’t a success, the inventors soon realized their product’s insulating properties could be useful. They started out promoting it as an insulation for green houses. Although that never quite took off, the inventors continued to look for ways to put their product to use.

One day, while on a flight, Chavannes had the inspiration that the bubbles of air in their wallpaper could act as “clouds” cushioning items for shipment. He realized its light weight and padding attributes would make it a great packing material. Conventional packing materials were bulky and added considerable weight to shipments. Bubble Wrap® was lightweight and compact. This could allow shippers the same amount of protection for their items in a smaller, lighter box. The flexible sheets of wrap were also easier to work with than traditional packing materials. This could simplify the packing and shipping process.

The inventors formed a new company, Sealed Air Corporation, to manufacture the product and develop new applications for their concept. The company’s big break finally came in late 1959. In October, IBM announced a new 1401 variable word length computer. One of Sealed Air Corporations salesmen, Frederick W. Bowers, thought Bubble Wrap® could be used by IBM to package their new 1401. He demonstrated the product and IBM began using Bubble Wrap® as protective packaging for a number of their fragile products, including the 1401.

By the 1970s they had added envelopes padded with Bubble Wrap® to their list of products. As the use of Bubble Wrap® increased, so did the popping of the air bubbles for therapeutic or startling effect. The widespread fondness for popping the packing material led to the creation of worldwide Bubble Wrap® Appreciation Day, which is held on the last Monday in January. There is even a website offering virtual Bubble Wrap® for people to pop and a virtual Bubble Wrap® app.

While there have been many evolution in shipping since the 1950s including new forklift technologies to make shipping on pallets easier and online tracking software, Bubble Wrap® is still manufactured and used around the world.