It’s no surprise that most life-altering innovations and discoveries of the past have been accidental. Here are the stories of a few “accidents” that changed the packaging industry for good.
On March 27, 1933, two organic chemists, R.O Gibson and E.W. Fawcett, were working for the Imperial Chemical Industries Research Laboratory. They came across a white, waxy substance while testing various chemicals.
The researchers set off a reaction between ethylene and benzaldehyde, in an autoclave. It appeared that the testing container sprang a leak and all of the pressure escaped. They found a white, waxy substance inside. Upon carefully repeating and analyzing the experiment, the scientists discovered that the loss of pressure was only partly due to a leak; the major reason was the polymerization process that had occurred leaving behind polyethylene. Polyethylene had been discovered before, in 1898, when German scientist Hans von Pechmann discovered a residue in his test tube. But he discarded it as he believed the waxy resin couldn’t have practical applications.
The first patents for polythene were registered in 1936 by Imperial Chemical Industries.
In the nineteenth century, many researchers were troubled by a highly viscous by-product sticking to their beakers. In 1909, it was Leo Baekeland who put together phenol and formaldehyde and subjected it to heat to replicate this thick, sticky resin that could be molded into hard infusible articles, thus inventing Bakelite.
Created in 1957 by Alfred Fielding and his business partner, a Swiss chemist named Marc Chavannes, Bubble Wrap is the result of an attempt to create a textured wallpaper that would appeal to the burgeoning Beat generation. They stuck two plastic shower curtains together through heat-sealing. It failed to sell for its chosen purpose, but they later realized that their invention could be used for packaging.
In 1942, Harry Coover was searching for materials to build clear plastic gun sights for the war, but what he discovered instead was a chemical formulation that stuck to everything it touched. His discovery was rejected because researchers didn't see a need for such a sticky formula, especially in his field of study. It wasn't until 1951 that the same formula was embraced and repurposed by Coover and fellow Eastman Kodak researcher Fred Joyner as "Alcohol-Catalyzed Cyanoacrylate Adhesive Compositions/Superglue".