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A love letter to a 750-square-foot roll of plastic wrap

    Jenny Ziomek

    Jenny Ziomek’s “A love letter to a 750-square-foot roll of plastic wrap” for The New York Times has recently sparked inspiration within me. Like the majority of people worldwide, I have often taken Saran Wrap for granted. However, delving into the realm of plastics has opened my eyes to a fascinating and previously unknown perspective.

    In 1933, a pivotal moment occurred in the history of materials science when Ralph Wiley, a diligent laboratory worker at Dow Chemical, stumbled upon a remarkable discovery by sheer accident. As he meticulously cleaned laboratory equipment, he encountered a perplexing situation: a film stubbornly clung to the inside of a vial, defying his efforts to remove it.

    Inspired by the remarkable resilience and durability exhibited by the substance coating the vial, Ralph Wiley, in a moment of creativity and whimsy, bestowed upon it the name “eonite.” Drawing inspiration from the world of comic strips, he chose to pay homage to the indestructible material featured in the popular “Little Orphan Annie” series.

    In this beloved comic strip, “eonite” represented an impervious substance capable of withstanding the test of time and the harshest of conditions. By bestowing this name upon the newly discovered material, Wiley aimed to capture its extraordinary ability to endure and resist external forces.

    This act of naming the substance “eonite” not only added a touch of character and charm to scientific discovery but also highlighted the creative and imaginative nature of its discoverer. By referencing a cultural icon and associating the material with the fictional world of comics, Wiley injected a sense of intrigue and fascination into the substance, further fueling interest in its potential applications and garnering attention from both the scientific community and the general public.

    The name “eonite” not only served as a nod to a beloved comic strip but also left an indelible mark on the material’s identity, forever etching its unique properties into the annals of scientific discovery. Through this playful yet meaningful act, Wiley added a touch of wonder and whimsy to the scientific process, reminding us that even in the realm of scientific exploration, creativity and inspiration can play an integral role in shaping the narrative of discovery.

    This resilient film turned out to be composed of a substance called polyvinylidene chloride. Intrigued by its unique properties, Wiley embarked on a series of further experiments, ultimately unraveling an array of remarkable characteristics possessed by this newfound material. He observed that the substance exhibited an extraordinary ability to cling to surfaces, while simultaneously resisting the effects of various chemicals. Moreover, it boasted an unparalleled impermeability to both air and water.

    Recognizing the immense potential of this material, Dow researchers ingeniously transformed it into a greasy, dark green film, christening it “Saran.” The military swiftly recognized the advantages of Saran and began utilizing it by spraying it onto fighter planes, providing a protective shield against the corrosive effects of salty sea spray. Additionally, the automotive industry found an innovative application for Saran, utilizing it in upholstery to safeguard against moisture and wear.

    In a continuous quest for improvement, Dow Chemical eventually eliminated Saran’s green hue and addressed its unpleasant odor. As a result of meticulous refinement and technological advancements, this remarkable material evolved into a revolutionary product specifically designed for food packaging and storage purposes. With its exceptional barrier properties and preservation capabilities, the modified Saran film emerged as a groundbreaking solution to extend the shelf life and maintain the freshness of various food items.

    Through the accidental discovery of polyvinylidene chloride by Ralph Wiley and the subsequent development and refinement by Dow Chemical, plastic wrap found its place in the annals of innovation. It not only revolutionized military and automotive applications but also transformed the way we preserve, protect, and store our food, fundamentally shaping modern packaging practices.