Today’s Factismal: The folded paper bag was invented in 1872.
What did polymaths to do for fun in 1872? They invented things. Sometimes, the things were just for fun, like the ever-popular magic square puzzles.Sometimes, the inventions were wildly impractical, like vertical take off airplanes (before there was even a regular airplane!). And sometimes, the things were so practical that you wonder why nobody thought of it before.
The paper bag is one such example. As a carrier for groceries, hardware, and other small things, it is almost perfect. Lightweight, easy to store, and inexpensive enough that stores could afford to give them away with every purchase, paper bags were an immediate hit. But it took a paper-folding aficionado by the name of Luther Childs Crowell to come up with it.
Crowell had already patented several devices, ranging from a stove polisher to a new type of grain holder, before he came up with the paper bag. He had noticed how paper could be folded into a tube with a sealed bottom and used to hold things. He then spent some time developing a machine to do the folding and sealing automatically, fiddling with it until the machine worked reliably and easily. He then worked with backers (what we would call “venture capitalists” today) to start a business making and selling paper bags. The business was an immediate success and made Crowell a wealthy man, but not so wealthy that he didn’t keep working. He went on to invent a machine that folded newspapers (still used today), a bottle labeler, and many other useful but “hidden” products.
Oddly enough, the same techniques that Crowell used to fold paper bags and newspapers are used today by biologists studying proteins and enzymes. The way that a protein or enzyme interacts with the environment around it depends on its shape. When a protein is folded properly, the cell operates properly. But when a protein is folded incorrectly, it is inactive or even dangerous; the deadly Mad Cow disease is due to a misfolded protein.
If you’d like to help biologists study how to properly fold proteins by playing games and making origami, then go over to Foldit and have some fun. Who knows? You might just discover the protein equivalent of the paper bag!