Monday, November 3, 2014

Apple #687: Bubble Wrap

After those intense posts about 9/11, I thought it would be good to talk about something that is especially soothing: bubble wrap.

It turns out, the company that makes a ton of bubble wrap (Sealed Air) recently posted a video showing how bubble wrap is made.  It got a ton of hits and was picked up by all sorts of websites.  But already the company has taken down the video.  Maybe they revealed too many production secrets.

But the good news is, your Apple Lady is here.  I've got other videos about how bubble wrap is made, and some handy facts as well.

Just looking at this photo makes you want to get your hands on some, doesn't it?
(Photo from Techno-Geek Nerd Princess

How Bubble Wrap Came to Be

  • Bubble wrap was one of those invention mistakes.  Meaning the person who invented it was trying to invent something else.  The thing he was trying to invent?   Textured wallpaper.
    • Can you imagine, your walls covered in bubble wrap?  You wouldn't want to hang any pictures or put any furniture next to your walls, because they would only be obstructions getting in your way as you rolled yourself around your bubble wrap walls.
  • It didn't become wallpaper because when Alfred W. Fielding and his inventing partner Marc Chavannes tested this material that they made by sealing two shower curtains together to trap air between them, it wasn't a hit as wallpaper.  It was 1957, and I guess people weren't into that much texture in their wallpapers.  So Fielding & Chavannes tried to think of something else they could use it for.
  • Their next idea was to sell it as insulating material for greenhouses.  That didn't go over too well, either.
    • By the way, you can insulate your windows with bubble wrap.  Cut wrap to fit the shape of the glass, wet the glass with a solution of water, some sort of liquid soap -- dish soap or shampoo will work fine -- and a touch of bleach. With the bubbles facing the glass, press the bubble wrap against the moistened glass, and it will stick there and keep some of the cold from getting in through the glass. 
  • The sealed shower curtain material languished for three years, and then a guy named Frederick Bowers at another company got an idea.  The year was 1959, and the company he worked for sold packing material.  He heard that IBM had just announced the release of their brand-new variable word-length computer.  He thought this sealed-shower-curtain stuff would make good packing material for those new computers.  So he went to IBM, pitched the idea, and the rest, as they say, is how it all got to be the way it is now.
  • The company Bowers worked for was called Sealed Air.  And today, Sealed Air is the primary manufacturer of bubble wrap -- though they do sell lots of other kinds of packing materials and related products.

The funny thing is, you can buy shower curtains made to look like bubble wrap, such as this Maytex Cubitz PEVA Shower Curtain, Clear, available on Amazon for about $15

or you can make your own shower curtains out of bubble wrap:
(Photo and instructions from Sparkle with everything you are)

Make Your Own Bubble Wrap

  • Say you not only want to make stuff out of bubble wrap, you want to make the bubble wrap itself for your very own.  Well, Sealed Air, the company that makes bubble wrap, now also makes a machine that makes bubble wrap for you. 
  • This machine is really intended for companies that don't have room to store rolls & rolls of bubble wrap.  So they can make the size & amount of wrap they want, as they need it.  But if you wanted to fork over the cash, you could buy one for yourself, too.
  • This video is pretty cool to watch because it gives you a good idea of how bubble wrap is made, not just in this one-off way, but also on the large scale.

  • The bad news is, this kind of bubble wrap isn't poppable.  The way this wrap is made, the bubbles are connected across the width of the plastic by an open channel so that when you apply pressure to the wrap, the bubbles won't pop, but rather the air will be pushed into nearby bubbles.  This makes the bubble wrap better at providing a cushion, but it does not give you the satisfaction of popping the bubbles.

If you were going to make a wedding dress out of bubble wrap, you might want the unpoppable kind.  Or, wait.  Maybe not.  Maybe you would totally want the poppable kind.
(Photo from Odd Loves Company)

Why Do We Like to Pop Bubble Wrap?

  • This is one of those very important "why" questions that are central to our experience as human beings, but which science has not gotten around to answering yet.  
  • But people do have their theories, including me, so I will share my theories with you.
    • It's tactile in a playful way -- the little bubbles just beg you to push them and squeeze them and poke them
    • You get a little surprise -- the first time you pop a bubble, there's a little surprise factor. But it's nothing loud or overwhelming, something small and contained within your hands.
    • The sound is pleasant -- can you imagine, if the gentle "pop" were instead a harpy's shriek or nails on a chalkboard or a car alarm or a dentist's drill?  People would not pop those bubbles for very long.
    • As soon as you've popped one bubble, the combination of all these elements, which are each pleasurable, makes you want to pop another one.  And then you discover yet another pleasure, which is the feeling that you are eradicating some problem -- little pockets of air that need to be popped -- so as you progress across a row or along an entire sheet, you feel you are accomplishing something, doing a favor for the world by cleaning up those little pockets of air.
    • The only disappointing part is when you've popped all the bubbles on the sheet, and you want to pop more.
    • Or, actually, there's another disappointing thing: when one of the bubbles has a leak, so instead of making the satisfying POP, it just goes Ffff.  Augh!  Then you really must pop another one. 

There is also this technique, which is the equivalent of slash-and-burn bubble wrap popping.  Satisfying on a larger scale, but also over much faster.
(Photo from liz lemon)

  • These are my totally and completely unscientific theories.  I invite you to quote me liberally on these.

Bubble Wrap, How Do We Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

  • But it does seem to be universally true that we love to pop bubble wrap.  
  • People have stretched bubble wrap across a public walkway:

  • A guy has equipped his bike so it will pop bubble wrap as he rides it:

  • Naturally, many people have wrapped themselves in bubble wrap and rolled down a hill. In this attempt, you can hear the bubbles popping.

  • 336 students at a school in New Jersey got together to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the biggest group bubble-wrap-popping event.  They did this to raise money for Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children were killed in a mass shooting by another student.  But they also had a lot of fun doing it. (From The Telegraph)

  • People have even held a soccer match where the players were encased in giant bubbles. (It isn't really bubble wrap, but it is really funny. The good stuff starts around 1 minute in.)

  • We humans are not alone in our delight in popping the bubble wrap.
  • Cats like to pop it:

  • Dogs like to pop it:

(Photo from Scott Spinelli)

  • Pet pigs go berserk when they pop it:

  • Even Russian raccoons like to pop it.

  • Maybe when people are having tense negotiations, they ought to give them sheets of bubble wrap.  Like, let's get some Palestinian leaders and some Israeli leaders to sit down, and they give everybody a whole lot of bubble wrap to play with.  Enough for, like, the whole day.  No talking allowed, only bubble wrap popping.  At the end of the day, they would say, "That was great.  What do we need to bomb each other for?  I don't know." And that would be the end of that.  There.  Middle East conflict resolved.

Faux Bubble Wrap?  Phooey

  • But because the tactile part of the experience is absent, in my opinion, it does not come close to the real thing.
  • You could say that about a lot of things, I suppose.  Ahem.

Stevens Institute of Technology, Alfred W. Fielding '39 Co-Invented Bubble Wrap
Daven Hiskey, Bubble Wrap Was Originally Supposed to be Wallpaper, Mental Floss, November 16, 2012
Daven Hiskey, Today I Found Out, Bubble Wrap Was Originally Designed to be Used as Wallpaper, November 2011
Daily Mail, How was bubble wrap invented? November 9, 2011
NBCNews, Bubble Wrap celebrating its 50th birthday, January 24, 2010
The Telegraph, School children set bubble wrap popping record, January 29, 2013

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