The challenging economy is dominating everyone's thoughts these days, but the holidays are on the horizon - which means it's time once again to think of wrapping presents, and how to mail them. Oh, bubble wrap! Packing material, plaything, stress reliever - we're so glad we didn't have to live in the barren days before it was invented.

The challenging economy is dominating everyone's thoughts these days, but the holidays are on the horizon - which means it's time once again to think of wrapping presents, and how to mail them. Oh, bubble wrap! Packing material, plaything, stress reliever - we're so glad we didn't have to live in the barren days before it was invented.

Bursting the bubble

Specifically, those were the days before 1957, when packages were stuffed with curled wood shavings, wadded pieces of paper, corrugated cardboard and stale popcorn. Thankfully, two young engineers from New Jersey, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, set out to make a name for themselves with a snazzy new product for the Jet Age.

They really wanted to make plastic wallpaper. Unfortunately, when they ironed two pieces of plastic together, they ended up with air-filled pockmarks. Nobody wanted to put this stuff on their walls.

Trying to salvage some lemonade from their lemons, Fielding and Chavannes retrenched, pitching their new material as insulation for greenhouses. No takers there, either.

Finally, after several years, the duo realized their cushy plastic sheets would make great packing material for a new high-tech gadget made by one International Business Machines Corporation - the computer. IBM liked the stuff, and it's been delighting shipping companies (and the young, young-at-heart and bored) ever since.

Styrofoam and the peanut gallery

If those ubiquitous packing peanuts drive you, well, nuts, you have Ray McIntire to blame - he invented "foamed polystyrene" for Dow Chemical in the 1940s. In his defense, it was an accident.

Trying to make an electrical insulator that would mimic the properties of rubber, he ended up with the lightweight, shock-absorbing, non-biodegradable material instead. A few years later, scientists figured out how to mold it into the Moebius-strip-like shapes that now spill all over the place whenever you open a package that isn't lucky enough to be padded with bubble wrap.

Boxy, but good

The first cardboard box was made in England in 1817, but cardboard itself was invented by the Chinese more than two centuries before that. At first, the English primarily used corrugated, or pleated, cardboard as a liner for stovepipe hats. But by the end of the 19th century, people had realized it could make a pretty good container, too.

Adapted from In the Beginning (HarperCollins), which is available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun, visit MentalFloss.com and check out mental_floss magazine at your local newsstand.