Accidental Inventions

 

Cellophane

You'd think the unsanitary conditions in the food industry at the end of the nineteenth century would've spurred the scientific community to action.

Problems with food were so rampant that it spurred Upton Sinclair to write his famous novel, The Jungle. Even after the release of the book, the uproar wasn't enough to prompt our next invention.

In fact, it was a stained tablecloth that led to the transparent food protector - cellophane.

Fun Facts
  • Sinclair's "Jungle" spurred on the passing of the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Meat Inspection Act (1906).
  • By 1938, cellophane sales accounted for 25 percent of DuPont's annual profit.
  • DuPont ceased production of cellophane in 1986 in favor of Mylar.
  • A cellulose derivative is used to help shampoos clean better as well as make the soap in shampoos less foamy.
  • Wood, paper, and cotton all contain cellulose.

Dr. Jacques E. Brandenberger

One day in 1900, Dr. Jacques E. Brandenberger was sitting in a cafe in his native Switzerland, when a hapless customer spilled a glass of wine. That fateful accident would change the landscape of food service forever.

While watching the waiter change the tablecloth, Brandenberger had an idea - a stain-resistant tablecloth. He wasn't sure how he'd accomplish it, but it seemed logical to apply a waterproof, flexible coating that would make the tablecloth stainproof.

Experimentation

Brandenberger set to experimenting immediately. His background as a textile engineer prepared him for the task of creating what he envisioned as a new kind of fabric.

Brandenbeger sought to combine the flexibility of a tablecloth with the water-resistant properties of cellulose.

First isolated in 1838, cellulose is the primary component in cell walls and is one of the most abundant plant fibers in nature.

A difficult substance to work with, the fibers tends to fall apart at a relatively low temperature. However, treating them with acid yields a film that can be manipulated.

Brandenberger's early experiments were unconvincing. He combined fabric with cellulose, trying to find some sort of hybrid.

He treated the cellulose coated fabric with many different substances, but none produced a viable result. The resulting fabric was too stiff to use as a table cloth and not durable: the plastic coating peeled off easily. Brandenberger was upset, but strangely curious.

An Amazing By-Product

Brandenberger found that the coating itself was quite flexible, and a little testing revealed that it was waterproof. Brandenberger had failed to find a waterproof tablecloth, but had instead invented a clear, flexible, plastic coating.

The first use of this new plastic film was in gas masks. In 1917 Brandenberger gave his patents to La Cellophane Societe Anonyme and joined that organization.

In 1923 La Cellophane reached an agreement with DuPont to allow that company to market Cellophane in the United States as a flexible covering for food.

Like so many other inventions, cellophane has become so pervasive that people use it to refer to all clear, plastic, flexible coverings for food, rather than the specific product that it is named for.