Pass the Bubbly
Some time ago, I was binge-watching on Hulu+ the British quiz/comedy series Q.I. (Quite Interesting), simultaneously the most fascinating, funniest and, at times, bawdiest TV program on the air. Stephen Fry (until 2015; now Sandy Toksvig) hosts four British comedians who answer questions about obscure knowledge, and make all manner of jokes. In an episode called “Kitsch,” the subject of bubble wrap came up, and I learned that there is such a thing as “Bubble-Wrap Awareness Day,” which falls on January 30 in 2017. (It is alternately called “Bubble-Wrap Appreciation Day,” and was started by a radio station in 2001.)
It turns out that there are an awful lot of appreciation days, or even weeks, from the important and worthwhile (Down Syndrome Awareness Week, National Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, World Autism Awareness Day, and various other medical awareness days and weeks) to the frivolous (National Popcorn Day, International Pillow Fight Day, and National Flip Flop Day).
There is actually a 3D Printing Day on December 3, but there does not seem to be any kind of general “Print/Printer Awareness Day.” Perhaps it’s high time we started one.
We might want to start our appreciation with a nineteenth-century French printer named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (1817–1879), who kicked off a bunch of things that ultimately led to the establishment of Bubble Wrap Awareness Day.
Scott de Martinville was a Parisian printer and bookseller, and amongst the things he printed were science textbooks. Not content with just printing them, he also read them, and sought to stay up-to-date on many of the latest advances in science. Inspired by the latest developments — as it were — in photography, he had the idea of doing for sound and voice what photography did for light and image: capture them. While proofreading a physics textbook, he came across illustrations of how the human auditory system worked.
Thus inspired, Scott de Martinville went on to patent, in 1857, the phonautograph, the earliest known device for recording sound. However, while it did __record __sound, it was unable to play it back, unlike later inventions. What the phonautograph did was transcribe a visual representation of a particular sound. Not intended for home entertainment, it was primarily meant as a research tool for the investigation of sound waves.
In 2008, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., did successfully convert a “phonautogram” — “squiggles on paper” — recorded in 1860 to a digital audio file. Not exactly a progressive-rock epic, it was a 10-second clip of a singer, possibly female, crooning “Au clair de la lune.” It is believed to be the earliest known sound recording, preceding Thomas Edison’s attempts by almost two decades.
(Poor Charlotte Green, BBC Radio 4’s newsreader, who played the restored phonautogram on her broadcast, but was unable to get through the next story without cracking up.)
We continue. Scott de Martinville never really got the credit he deserved, and Edison is known as the inventor of the phonograph, the first device that was capable of both recording and playing back recorded sound, originally using wax cylinders.
Sound like music.
(In 1996, the band They Might Be Giants recorded several songs at the Edison Laboratory on wax cylinders. One was the classic “I Can Hear You,” a look at then-modern communication devices that sounded no better than old wax cylinders. And still don’t.)
The (arguably) first “pop music star” owed much of his success to the phonograph. Even those generally unfamiliar with opera — and who likely couldn’t name a contemporary opera star beyond maybe Pavarotti (I was only ever familiar with Beverly Sills because she once appeared on The Muppet Show) — will likely know the name Enrico Caruso.
Born in 1873, he took the opera world by storm, but what made him stand out amongst his peers was his embrace of a new technology: the phonograph. Between 1903 and 1920, he made somewhere in the neighborhood of 290 commercially released recordings — and which are still available in modern formats today, even through the iTunes Store. Later generations of opera singers like Mario Lanza all cite Caruso as their chief inspiration, and in large part this was due to being able to listen to him in their own homes. Many of Caruso’s contemporaries dismissed the phonograph, believing the quality to be too poor. They changed their tunes — so to speak — once they found out how much money Caruso was making from commercial recordings.
Caruso died in 1921 at the age of 48 (hastened by his fondness for cigarettes). However, he does play a major role in another new technological development, a key one in the history of 20th-century mass media.
On January 12, 1910, part of the performance of Tosca, starring Caruso, was broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Broadcast live…on what? Well, it was the first live radio broadcast. It was an experiment conducted by Lee DeForest, one of the inventors of what we know today as “radio” (it was originally called “wireless” but DeForest disliked that term and preferred “radio”). DeForest dubbed himself “The Father of Radio,” and is famous for the quote, “I discovered an Invisible Empire of the Air, intangible, yet solid as granite.” You could say he could see DeForest for the trees. But anyway.
DeForest was embroiled in a variety of patent lawsuits, but he is generally acknowledged as the inventor, in 1906, of the Audion, an electronic amplifying vacuum tube originally developed for use in radio receivers and other types of nascent electronic equipment. The three-electrode “triode” version of the Audion was what essentially spawned the electronic age. Whilst the vacuum tube was eventually superseded by the transistor, virtually all the precursors of today’s electronic devices — TVs, radios, computers, and myriad scientific equipment — used vacuum tubes. The vacuum tube also has a role to play in the final chapter of our story.
In 1957, in a Hawthorne, N.J., garage, two engineers — Alfred W. Fielding and Marc Chavannes — were beavering away on something they hoped would change interior décor as we (or more likely they) knew it. They sealed two plastic shower curtains together and attempted to market the result as wallpaper. Alas, the world was not ready for clear plastic wallpaper. Strike one. (They were probably a few years too early; add a few psychedelic images and it could have decorated the set of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In a decade later.) They then tried to sell it as insulation for greenhouses. Nope; strike two. However, there was one distinguishing characteristic that eventually made the material a success; in between the layers of shower curtain were small pockets of air. Bubbles you might say.
Timing is everything, isn’t it, and the Sealed Air Corporation, founded officially by Fielding and Chervannes in 1960, had time on its side. In 1959, IBM had introduced the 1401, the first in its 1400 series, one of the world’s first mass-produced business computers. It also still ran on vacuum tubes, and had other fragile internal components. How to protect them during shipping to customers?
According to the Sealed Air Corporation’s company lore, a marketing expert named Frederick Bowers brought the shower-curtains-with-air-bubbles to IBM and it proved to be the perfect material to protect glass and electronic computer components.
And thus was born Bubble Wrap.
In another blow for the printing industry, however, the subsequent popularity of Bubble Wrap for packaging and shipping displaced newspaper for these purposes; crumpled up newspaper had been the previous low-cost packaging material. So it goes.
Since then, Bubble Wrap has become almost a cultural icon — if not for packaging then certainly for the popping of the bubbles. (There is even an iPhone app that lets you pop “virtual Bubble Wrap,” for reasons passing understanding.) Bubble Wrap also played an interesting role in a 2013 study of “cuteness” and the extent to which cuteness triggers aggression (Pappas, 2013):
Dyer and her colleagues asked 90 male and female volunteers to come into a psychology laboratory and view a slideshow of cute, funny and neutral animals.
Researchers told the participants that this was a study of motor activity and memory, and then gave the subjects sheets of bubble wrap. The participants were instructed to pop as many or as few bubbles as they wanted, just as long as they were doing something involving motion.
In fact, the researchers really wanted to know if people would respond to cute animals with an outward display of aggression, popping more bubbles, compared with people looking at neutral or funny animals.
That’s exactly what happened. The people watching a cute slideshow popped 120 bubbles, on average, compared with 80 for the funny slideshow and just a hair over 100 for the neutral one.
Here is a summary of the study from Q.I.
At any rate, Happy Bubble Wrap Awareness Day.
- Monte Burke, “Wrap Star,” Forbes, April 28, 2006, http://www.forbes.com/global/2006/0508/026.html.
- Stephanie Pappas, “‘I Wanna Eat You Up!’ Why We Go Crazy for Cute, Live Science, January 21, 2013, http://www.livescience.com/26452-why-we-go-crazy-for-cuteness.html.
- John Potter, “Almost as good as Presley: Caruso the pop idol,” The Public Domain Review, February 13, 2012, http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/02/13/almost-as-good-as-presley-caruso-the-pop-idol/.
- Q.I. (Quite Interesting), http://qi.com/television/series-k/episode-k15-kitsch.
- Jody Rosen, “Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison,” New York Times, March 27, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/27/arts/27soun.html?hp.
- Enrico Caruso, Wikipedia, last modified December 28, 2014, accessed January 13, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enrico_Caruso.
- Lee De Forest, Wikipedia, last modified January 4, 2015, accessed January 13, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_de_Forest
- Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, Wikipedia, last modified September 25, 2014, accessed January 13, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Édouard-Léon_Scott_de_Martinville.