Did You Know Bubble Wrap was Invented Right Here in Hawthorne?
It was an impish sort of way how Howard Fielding, then only a boy, popped his first bubble on a sheet of Bubble Wrap when his father was not looking.
Luckily for him, his family and the entire civilized world, many more bubbles would pop in the years and decades to come. But Fielding was one of the first people to hold a sheet of Bubble Wrap in his hands, press one of its tiny air-filled sacs between his thumb and forefinger and listen to it burst.
"I remember being the first beta tester for Bubble Wrap," said Fielding, now 63, a retired journalist living in Southbury, Connecticut.
Fielding's father, the late Alfred Fielding, co-invented Bubble Wrap in 1957 and brought sheets of it home to Wayne for his only child to play with.
Fielding said it was like a "dirty little secret" of his to pop the bubbles — not because his father told him not to, but he knew his inventor dad never would pop them himself.
No one knew at the time how valuable that curious-looking creation would be, or how it eventually would revolutionize the method by which goods are packaged and shipped.
Bubble Wrap and the little machine shop the elder Alfred Fielding operated on Wagaraw Road in Hawthorne now is a multibillion-dollar enterprise, called Sealed Air Corp.
E-commerce has played a big part in the company's growth over the past decade.
The largest e-commerce company in the world, Amazon.com Inc., shipped 5 billion packages to its Prime customers last year, according to published reports. There is a "99.9 percent chance" that anyone who received a package from Amazon — or any e-commerce distributor — this holiday season also found in the box a Sealed Air product.
"The holiday effect is huge," said Chad Stephens, vice president of global innovation and development for the Product Care division of Sealed Air. "When most of the world is ramping down, we're ramping up."
Invented in Hawthorne
Fielding, an engineer schooled at Stevens Institute of Technology, was running a modest shop on the industrial corridor that parallels the Passaic River when he hooked up in the mid- to late-1950s with a Swiss experimenter named Marc Chavannes.
Their goal, Fielding said, was to make the first 3D wallpaper. It had nothing to do with packaging — not yet, anyway.
"The idea was ingenious," said T.J. Dermot Dunphy, 86, who was brought on to help manage Sealed Air in the late 1960s. "The founders had no idea it was going to be a packaging company. They just had this idea."
Dunphy, who went on to play a vital role in the rise of the company as its chief executive officer for 30 years, described the Frick-and-Frack bond between Chavannes and Fielding as symbiotic. They fed off each other's strengths, he said.
Chavannes was the "main creative force" behind the invention, Dunphy said, but he lacked technical qualifications, expertise that Fielding had covered. "They figured they were inventing the next nylon," he said. "That was their mission — their North Star."
But the wallpaper idea was a flop.
When Dunphy became the company's chief executive in 1971, he found a consultant's report in the drawer of his desk that listed 400 ideas for how to use the invention. "Of course, the real business was packaging material, and that's what it was from Day One," he said.
Stars aligned for the inventors in 1960, when IBM — the IT giant, based in Armonk, New York — needed something to protect its computers from being damaged during shipment.
The duo had their first major customer, and Sealed Air was established.
Hawthorne Mayor Richard Goldberg said he is proud that Bubble Wrap was invented within borough limits.
"I, like most people, always have fun popping the Bubble Wrap," said the mayor, who moved to the borough as a child in 1959. "I just missed the invention, but I've been celebrating ever since."
The current owner of the property where Fielding's shop was, Robert Scully of Scully's Ice R&L Co. Inc., at Passaic Avenue and Wagaraw Road, was familiar with much of the lore involving the beginning of Sealed Air, but he said he did not know it had happened on his land.
Scully, who retired as the borough's chief of police in 2013, said the topic of Bubble Wrap has never come up with his customers.
Growing pains moved Sealed Air from Hawthorne to Fair Lawn and, then, to Saddle Brook. Its home base for the past two years has been Charlotte, North Carolina.
Fielding said his father and Chavannes died in 1994.
Both men are enshrined in the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame.
Expansion and legacy
Sealed Air, which employs 15,000 people in 122 countries, reported $4.5 billion in sales last year, according to a company spokeswoman. It has been ranked on the Fortune 500 list of top revenue-generating corporations in the U.S. for 21 years.
Stephens said the rise of e-commerce has helped to build the company, but that it is "not totally dependent" on it.
"Around the holidays, even in the past, whether there was e-commerce or not, as people have globalized and moved outside of the villages they grew up in, people send things," Stephens said.
"I believe, if I were to look back, you'd see a spike in shipments," he went on, referring to Sealed Air's fourth-quarter gains. "E-commerce made it more of an exponential spike."
An Amazon spokeswoman would not provide information for this story. Other e-commerce companies, including eBay and Walmart, did not answer requests for information.
Over the years, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, Sealed Air made several strategic acquisitions to position the company for further expansion in the 21st century, Stephens said. Of particular note, he said, was the purchase in 1998 of the Cryovac packaging business from W.R. Grace & Co., based in Columbia, Maryland. The brand, which was around for 50 years by the time Sealed Air bought it, is shrink-film for perishable food.
Still, the most widely recognized product emerging out of Sealed Air plants is Bubble Wrap and its offspring, air pillows, which customers inflate themselves by using small machines that the company also sells.
Sealed Air has cornered the market.
Stephens said the company is "three times larger" than its biggest competitor. "You name the account," he said, "you got a 99.9 percent chance that they're a customer of ours."
Bubble Wrap has become so ubiquitous in American culture that there is a Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, celebrated on the last Monday in January. There also is a display of it as part of MoMA's online art collection. And, at the elder Alfred Fielding's alma mater, a room in the admissions center is dedicated to the invention, said Thania Benios, director of public relations for Stevens Institute.
Benios said one wall in the room is made out of Bubble Wrap, a nod to the wallpaper that never was.
Widespread acclaim for his father's invention is not lost on Howard Fielding, but he said he normally does not bring up the topic outside of his own home.
For it is there, on his doorstep, that periodic reminders of his childhood, and the very first bubble he popped, keep coming and coming.
"We get a lot of packages with Bubble Wrap in them," he said. "And it's really hard for me to part with this stuff."
Read this story on NewJersey.com.