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They Could Have Been Billionaires: Walter Diemer


He chewed over the problem of how to make a better bubble but forgot to put his stamp of ownership on his new and improved gum.

Modern chewing gum first hit shelves in 1869, after New York inventor Thomas Adams failed to manufacture a viable form of rubber but managed to come up with a chicle-based compound more suitable for chewing.

He called it, quite straightforwardly, Adams New York No. 1.

Bubble gum, however, didn't appear until 1928, when 23-year-old Walter Diemer, an accountant with the New Jersey-based Fleer Company (who had no background in chemistry but a passion for tinkering) had a eureka moment.

Fleer had tried its hand at bubble gum 22 years earlier. The company's founder, Frank Fleer, made an early form of bubble gum in 1906 called BlibberBlubber. However, it was too sticky and its bubbles broke too easily, so production was scrapped.

Gilbert Mustin, who had, by then, taken over the company, had been looking for operating cost efficiencies, and hit upon the idea of manufacturing gum base in-house, rather than buying it pre-made and then adding flavorings.

He set up a lab next to Diemer's office and set out to build a better mousetrap, er, concoct a cheaper gum base.

As the story goes, Fleer only had one telephone. One day, Mustin was summoned to the first floor -- where the phone happened to be -- and Diemer became curious about what was brewing in the lab.

It was then that he decided to conquer what had been previously thought to be an impossible formula -- bubble gum.

After a year of tinkering when he wasn't poring over Fleer's numbers (and after Mustin grew weary of failure after failure), Diemer got the formula just right.

That batch worked flawlessly; it was soft and blew perfect bubbles that didn't stick to people's faces. However, left overnight, the gum became too hard to chew.

Four months later, Diemer tried adding latex, which solved the consistency problem. He mixed a 300-pound batch and flavored it with wintergreen, peppermint, vanilla, and cinnamon, which when combined, produce a flavor that we today associate with the taste of "bubble gum". What Diemer's bubble gum didn't have, however, was color.

Diemer grabbed the only food coloring in the factory, which happened to be pink. If all the factory had available happened to have been orange, the sensory association between bubble gum and the color pink would never have been.

An ecstatic Gilbert Mustin named Diemer's creation Dubble Bubble, which went on to become the most successful one-cent treat on the candy market.

Diemer may have gotten bubble gum right, but he neglected one very important part of the process: a patent for his invention.

Walter Diemer was quickly promoted to senior vice president. He taught Fleer's salesmen to blow bubbles in order to stimulate sales as they made their rounds. Bubble gum was so successful, the company had trouble manufacturing enough product to meet demand.

After Diemer's two children died in 1986 and his wife Adelaide died in 1990, he moved to the Lancashire Terrace Retirement Village in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he rode an adult-size tricycle and rode around giving out free bubble gum to children.

Diemer married again at the age of 91, and died two years later. He never received any royalties from his bubble gum, but his second wife said that knowing that his creation made people happy was reward enough.

Bonus trivia question:

Q: Do you know why there has never been a chocolate-flavored chewing gum?

A: It's not technically feasible. The cocoa butter in chocolate emulsifies the gum base, making it too soft to chew enjoyably.

Perhaps if Walter Diemer were still with us, he could have figured that one out.

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