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Packaging (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

In this gift-buying season, you can study a sub-discipline of engineering that fascinates me: Packaging.

A good package blends technical know-how and psychology. The engineer must understand the chemistry between, say, orange juice and its coated cardboard package, but must also grasp the emotional chemistry between the package and the consumer. In Japan, for example, fish cakes come wrapped in paper that looks like traditional handmade leaves, yet it sports a bar code.

The grand daddy of all packagers is Gale Borden. Milk springs to mind when I mention Borden, which just shows how successful he was. He became interested in packaging food to make it portable after hearing in 1846 of the Donner Party.

While traveling west they became trapped by snow. Only 47 of the original 87 survived, and they did so by eating the others. This gruesome tragedy stirred Borden to action.

He first tried to condense the essence of meat into a biscuit. It took six years and sixty thousand dollars to develop, but failed because it was unsightly and unpalatable. But the idea of condensing fascinated Borden.

He advised his pastor to "Condense your sermons;" he told lovers to no longer write poetry, but to "Condense all they have to say into a kiss;" and he suggested you spend as little time as possible at a meal, he was always done in fifteen minutes. Borden's next attempt at food packaging came while on an ocean voyage to London.

The ship's seasick cows couldn't be milked, so the ship filed with the cries of hungry infants, which spurred him to invent condensed milk. Although experts told him it won't work, Borden put some in a vacuum pan and boiled it. It failed, just as the experts predicted, because it stuck to the pan. Being less knowledgeable than the experts, Borden simply greased the pan and it worked fine to make condensed milk. He canned the product, selling it with promise of all good packaging: a sanitary and safe product.

Borden's condensed milk took off with the Civil War because soldiers needed portable rations. In fact, wars are often the stimulus for a quantum leap in packaging.

From World War One emerged cellophane - it was used for gas mask lens - after the War packagers used cellophane to wrap and display goods. Then World War Two sparked our current state of packaging by making America excel in plastics: Saran Wrap, for example, started in the War as a film to protect aircraft engines from water. And eventually World War Two soldiers had plastic canteens and containers to protect ammo, and they carried rations in plastic or foil pouches.

Plastics were not the only innovation from World War Two, it also introduced, of course, the nuclear age. I hope, for humanities sake, that this new type of war never makes for a packaging revolution.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises