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Ben there, done that

Consider balloons

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What is more ubiquitous at parties than balloons? For generations, balloons have been a fun and colorful pop added to all kinds of festive celebrations, particularly birthdays. While balloons have been around since the 1800s, the last decade has seen a fascinating shift in the age-old tradition: enter foil balloons. Most likely you have recognized this trend and purchased foil balloons yourself. Ever wonder what initiated this trend? A culmination of scientific chemical research, a controversial music video, and Instagram influencers. So, let’s discover where those foil number balloons came from and why so many people are obsessed with them.

Balloons have a long history stretching back to 1824 when a pioneering scientist, Michael Faraday, fused two sheets of rubber together and filled them with hydrogen. For the next 150 years, balloons were designed almost exclusively from different rubber materials. While in many respects, rubbers were well suited to balloon making, the porous nature of the stretchy stuff meant that the helium or hydrogen would start to escape from the moment the balloon was inflated. Thus, balloons were tragically short lived. To extend their lives, a better solution to contain gas was needed.

In the 1950s, the DuPont chemical company began to develop a new material, BoPET, also known as Mylar. This material was a polyester film coated in a flexible foil lining. The applications for this new material were vast as it was thin, airtight, flexible, insulating, and relatively inexpensive. Nasa even used a 131ft balloon made of Mylar for its Echo II mission in 1964. Today’s uses include an incredible range of products including trading cards, electrical insulation, spacecraft solar sails, and everything in between. In the 1970s, party balloons made of this novel material hit the market. While Mylar was not overly expensive, the balloons made from it were significantly more expensive than ones made from latex, making them a premium product. However, the Mylar was superior at containing the gas used to fill balloons. This allowed them to last much longer than other balloons, in some cases, remaining buoyant for weeks on end.

Foil balloons were not a smash hit, but also not a commercial failure either. However, their rise to stardom would all commence in the early 2010s. On March 20, 2013, Robin Thicke released the music video for his controversial song “Blurred Lines.” The final moments of the video featured a number of foil balloons. Not to be excluded from the fun, in 2014, Miley Cyrus would pose for a photo in front of some foil balloons to promote the tour for her album “Bangerz.” Over the next couple of years, celebrities of increasing popularity would jump on the foil balloon trend including Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and even Beyoncé. Numerous images were communicated on social media where influencers began taking hold of the trend as well. The balloons became so popular on social media that they soon became known as “Instaballoons.”

After circulating on social media, this trend then crossed over into the mainstream. While many of the higher profile users of foil balloons used them to write out entire sentences in large letters up to four feet in height, this kind of display was often cost prohibitive for the average consumer. A large foil letter or number balloon could cost upwards of $15-$20 dollars each. To keep the price more affordable, consumers began to just get the two numbers to show the age they are turning. In addition, smaller sized balloons became more popular to make the price point more accessible. A search for foil balloons on Google trends reveals building popularity in the 2010s which has sustained to this day, so it looks like foil balloons might be here to stay.

Now, foil balloons might seem like a fun and harmless festive way to celebrate another year of life, right? Well, there is one side to them we also need to look at. Because of their foil-covered and conductive exterior, Mylar balloons are very dangerous to the power grids. When a foil balloon collides with a power line, a loud, violent explosion happens. This can knock out the power, start wildfires, and cause a plethora of other problems. As the popularity of these shiny balloons has risen, so has the number of incidents caused by them. In the US alone, every year escaped balloons collide with power lines, causing thousands of incidents. Because of this, it is important keep Mylar balloons indoors only. And that is how a material used by Nasa for space missions became a mainstay of modern birthday celebrations.

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