The Right Chemistry: One of the greatest inventions had to be 'burped'

Before polyethylene was used for Tupperware, it had great importance when radar facilities were being developed during the Second World War.

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The place was Detroit, the date sometime in 1949. Brownie Wise pressed down on the lid of the bowl into which she had just poured some water, proceeded to lift it just a bit to let out a “burp of air before sealing it again.”

Then she picked up the bowl and tossed it to one of the women who had been invited to attend her Tupperware party. The startled lady caught it, and like all the others sitting in that living room, was amazed that not a drop of water had been spilled! They just had to have this “Wonder Bowl” that promised to preserve freshness, limit spoilage and eliminate spills. The bowl, along with a host of other such plastic containers, was the brainchild of inventor Earl Tupper. His Tupperware would eventually be recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. 

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The Tupperware story begins back in 1933 with a serendipitous discovery. In England, Imperial Chemical Industry (ICI) chemists Reginald Gibson and William Fawcett were studying chemical reactions under high pressure and temperature. When they dismantled the equipment in which they had combined ethylene and benzaldehyde, much to their surprise they found that a waxy white solid had formed.

Chemical analysis showed that it contained only carbon and hydrogen and it seemed that the small ethylene molecules had polymerized — joined together to form a long chain via a process that had been proposed by future Nobel laureate Hermann Staudinger. But when the chemists tried to reproduce the formation of this supposed “polyethylene,” they were stymied.

Sometimes they were only left with a dark residue and worse, on occasions the equipment couldn’t handle the pressure and exploded. ICI decided to suspend the research, but Fawcett described the work at a meeting of the Faraday Society in England in 1935. Interestingly, Staudinger was present at that meeting and didn’t agree with the conclusion about polyethylene being formed.

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That disbelief turned out to be to the benefit of the Allies in the Second World War, because due to Staudinger’s skepticism, Germany did not pursue research into polyethylene. That turned out to be a critical mistake for them.  

Although ICI had banned high-pressure research, Michael Perrin, who had originally proposed such studies, was still intrigued. Two years after Gibson and Fawcett’s discovery, he pursued the research in secret on his own time with colleagues Edmond Williams and John Paton. This time, using only ethylene, they succeeded in producing polyethylene.

Some of the ethylene leaked out of the apparatus and when it was replaced, inadvertently some air was also introduced. It turned out that oxygen was the initiator needed to polymerize ethylene. Then came a momentous discovery: Polyethylene had amazing properties as an insulator. That turned out to be of immense importance when radar facilities were being developed during the early years of the Second World War.  

Transmission of the radar signal to screens requires highly effective insulation of cables, a task that had fallen to rubber, Bakelite, ceramics, glass or mica. While these materials are excellent insulators, their weight presented a difficulty when designing airborne radar systems. Switching to polyethylene made for smaller and lighter radar systems that allowed for installation in airplanes. British planes were able to detect both approaching aircraft and submarines, even at night or when visibility was poor, and mount attacks against them.

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Since Staudinger’s opinion had been highly respected in Germany, the military had not pursued polyethylene research. Consequently, German radar equipment was too cumbersome for the Luftwaffe’s aircraft, explaining why some historians credit polyethylene with turning the tide in the Battle of Britain. The plastic’s lightweight and insulating properties also made it the ideal material for insulating the first transatlantic telephone cables. In a world where plastics have become a pariah, these contributions of polyethylene are often forgotten. 

ICI built its first polyethylene production plant in 1939 and shared the technology with DuPont in the U.S., which also began to produce the polymer. It was at a DuPont plant in Leominster, Mass., that Earl Tupper, who had no formal education, found a job and learned about producing plastics.

He had always fancied himself as an inventor, having come up with an improved stocking garter and a comb that could be clipped to one’s belt. Having no success with these, he was keen to take up DuPont’s challenge for employees to think of peacetime uses for the polyethylene that was in abundance after the war. Tupper recalled the frequency with which the heavy ceramic and glass containers found in every kitchen were dropped and broken.  

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As a youngster, Earl had seen his parents struggle with various businesses and was bothered by his father’s lack of ambition. He decided that he would follow a different path and become rich. DuPont had given him some of the raw material, and he began to experiment with melting the pellets and molding the plastic into different shapes. 

Based on some early success, he purchased a couple of molding machines, left DuPont and founded “Tupper Plastics.”

Working in his kitchen with his son, Tupper found a way to purify the molten polyethylene, allowing it to be molded into a translucent material that seemed to be ideal for producing kitchen containers. But his real brainchild was the innovative way in which those containers were to be sealed. Borrowing an idea from paint-can covers, he patented a container with a lid that that could be pressed down to expel air and then produce a tight seal.

At first, Tupperware did not sell well, but then he noticed that a woman in Michigan was buying a lot of his wares. It turned out to be Brownie Wise, who had come up with her own invention of sorts: the Tupperware party. Women would be invited to watch a demonstration of the product and be enticed to start their own business by organizing such parties.  

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Tupper immediately recognized the potential of this method of marketing and hired Brownie as vice-president in charge of sales. She performed in a spectacular fashion and helped build Tupperware into a multibillion-dollar empire, becoming the face of the company. Eventually Tupper became jealous of her fame, fired her, sold the company, divorced his wife and retired to Costa Rica.  

Today, polyethylene is the most widely produced plastic in the world and is still used to make Tupperware. While not appropriate for microwaving or the dishwasher, Tupperware is very handy for storing food, lasts a long time, and indeed “preserves freshness, limits spoilage and prevents spills.”

If you want to have some party fun, fill a Wonder Bowl with water and fling it about. If you want to live on the wild side, use grape juice.  

[email protected]

Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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