Chance Discoveries: Cellophane

Air Date: 12/06/2011
Source:
NBC Learn
Creator:
Ron Allen
Air/Publish Date:
12/06/2011
Event Date:
12/06/2011
Resource Type:
Science Explainer
Copyright:
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
Copyright Date:
2011
Clip Length:
-

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.

Close NBC Learn

Choose your product

NBC Learn K-12 product site
NBC Learn Higher Ed product site

For NBC Learn in Learning Management Systems please log in to your institution's Learning Management System web site and click "Browse NBC Learn".
For further assistance, please contact our NBC Learn Support Team and we'll be happy to assist you.

Start Your Free
day
Day Trial!
Close NBC Learn

FILTERING

If you are trying to view the videos from inside a school or university, your IT admin may need to enable streaming on your network. Please see the Internet Filtering section of our Technical Requirements page.

DVDs AND OTHER COPIES

Videos on this page are not available on DVD at this time due to licensing restrictions on the footage.

DOWNLOADING VIDEOS

Subscribers to NBC Learn may download videos and play them back without an internet connection. Please click here to find out more about subscribing or to sign up for a FREE trial (download not included in free trial).

Still have questions?
Click here to send us an email.

Close NBC Learn

INTERNATIONAL VISITORS

The Science of the Olympic Winter Games videos are only available to visitors inside the United States due to licensing restrictions on the Olympics footage used in the videos.

FILTERING

If you are trying to view the videos from inside a school or university, your IT admin may need to enable streaming on your network. Please see the Internet Filtering section of our Technical Requirements page.

DVDs AND OTHER COPIES

The Science of the Olympic Winter Games is not available on DVD at this time due to licensing restrictions on on Olympic footage.

DOWNLOADING VIDEOS

Subscribers to NBC Learn may download videos and play them back without an internet connection. Please click here to find out more about subscribing or to sign up for a FREE trial (download not included in free trial).

Still have questions?
Click here to send us an email.

Close NBC Learn

Choose your product

NBC Learn K-12 product site
NBC Learn Higher Ed product site

For NBC Learn in Blackboard™ please log in to your institution's Blackboard™ web site and click "Browse NBC Learn"

Close NBC Learn

If you have received a new user registration code from your institution, click your product below and use the "Register now" link to sign up for a personal account.

NBC Learn K-12 product site
NBC Learn Higher Ed product site

For further assistance, please contact our NBC Learn Support Team and we'll be happy to assist you.

Start Your Free
day
Day Trial!