This NBC Learn video, part of a series on "Chance Discoveries" in chemistry, traces the development of cellophane from liquid viscous cellulose, applied to fabric to protect from stains, to a thin clear film first used as a luxury gift wrap and after it was made moisture-proof, as a fundamental form of protective yet transparent food packaging.
Chance Discoveries: Cellophane
RON ALLEN, reporting:
Open a bag of candy, sandwich or fresh vegetables and you will find it wrapped in a thin translucent film: cellophane - a natural plastic made to protect and preserve food from air, moisture, and bacteria. We take cellophane for granted today, but its chance discovery in the early 1900's revolutionized the food industry. In fact, when the inspiration came to Jacques Brandenberger, he wasn't even in a chemistry lab.
MICHAL MEYER (Editor-in-Chief, Chemical Heritage): So the story goes that Swiss chemist Jacques Brandenberger was at a restaurant in France, and he spills red wine. And, of course, red wine stains badly. So he had the bright idea of covering the tablecloth with some kind of natural plastic that would prevent the wine from getting through the plastic and staining the tablecloth.
ALLEN: Brandenberger started with something chemists call a "viscous" - a thick, syrupy liquid plastic derived from the natural material cellulose. He chose cellulose, a polymer of sugar molecules, because it was strong, durable and readily available. Brandenberger applied it to a cloth and let it dry. The cellulose layer developed a stiff, brittle quality, one of many problems that would delay the eventual discovery of cellophane.
MEYER: Another problem with the cellophane he created is it wouldn't actually stick to the tablecloth, it would peel off.
ALLEN: This accidental peeling quality sparked Brandenberger's curiosity. He decided to abandon the search for a high-tech tablecloth and instead began to develop a machine to produce the film. By 1912, he perfected his machinery and started producing the thin, clear film that he named cellophane -- a word derived from the French words for cellulose and diaphane, meaning transparent. This early form of cellophane was strong and flexible, but it was still missing an important feature.
MEYER: Cellophane, when it was initially created, was not moisture proof. That is, water vapor could get through it, so you couldn't use it to wrap food or anything like that, because the food would dry out. So in that sense, when it was first created, there was no wide use for it.
ALLEN: Because it was expensive to produce and had to be imported all the way from France, cellophane was initially used to wrap only high-end items like perfume bottles.
MEYER: The second breakthrough, I suppose you could say, another discovery was figuring out a way to make it completely moisture proof. And that happened in 1927 in the United States.
ALLEN: DuPont acquired the rights to produce cellophane in the U.S. in 1923 and opened a plant to produce it in Buffalo, New York. Company chemist William Hale Charch developed a way to make it moisture proof in 1927 - coat both sides of the sheet with a thin layer of nitrocellulose, a combination of cotton and nitric acid that gave cellophane a hard yet flexible finish. With this breakthrough and the eventual drop in price from $2.65 to only 45 cents a pound due to mass production, cellophane wrap became a food industry staple. It protected food, yet still displayed it.
MEYER: You can tell if your bread is moldy or not. You can tell if your vegetables are fresh or not. You can actually see what you're buying which becomes very important to consumers.
ALLEN: With more people buying their food from stores instead of growing it themselves, everyone from bakers to butchers was interested in cellophane to protect and preserve their perishable products. From packaging for expensive perfumes to a protective layer for produce, that's the wrap on this chance discovery of cellophane.
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