In 1972, a US baggage official unscrewed four casters from a cabinet and attached them to a suitcase. Then he put a strap on his contraption and trotted it happily around his house.
This is how Bernard Sadow invented the world’s first rolling suitcase. This happened around 5,000 years after the invention of the wheel and barely a year after NASA managed to place two men on the surface of the moon using the largest rocket ever built. We had driven an electric rover with wheels on an alien celestial body and even invented the hamster wheel. So why did it take us so long to put wheels on suitcases? It has become a kind of classic innovation mystery.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller addresses the issue in two different books, Narrative Economics and The New Financial Order. He sees it as an archetypal example of how innovation can be a very slow thing: how “blinding evidence” can star us in the face for ages.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is another world famous thinker who has pondered the mystery. Having lugged heavy suitcases around airports and train stations for years, he was amazed by his own unconditional acceptance of the status quo. Taleb sees the rolling suitcase as a parable of how we often tend to ignore the simpler solutions. As humans, we seek the difficult, the grand, and the complex. Technology – like having wheels on the suitcases – may seem obvious in hindsight, but that doesn’t mean has been obvious.
Likewise, in the management and innovation literature, the late invention of the rolling suitcase often appears as a warning. A reminder of our limits as innovators.
But there is one factor these thinkers missed. I came across it while researching for my book on Women and Innovation. I found a photo in a newspaper archive of a woman in a fur coat pulling out a rolling suitcase. This made me stop dead because it was from 1952, 20 years before the official “invention” of the rolling suitcase. Fascinated, I continued to search. Soon a whole different story about our limitations as innovators was unfolding.
The modern suitcase was born at the end of the 19th century. When mass tourism took off, major stations in Europe were inundated with porters, who helped passengers with their luggage. But by the middle of the 20th century, porters were dwindling in number and passengers increasingly carried their own luggage.
Advertisements for products applying wheel-to-suitcase technology can be found in British newspapers as early as the 1940s. These aren’t exactly rolling suitcases, but a gadget known as a “portable laptop” – a rolling device that can be attached to a suitcase. But it never really took.
In 1967, a woman from Leicestershire wrote a scathing letter to her local newspaper, complaining that a bus driver had forced her to buy an extra ticket for her rolling suitcase. The driver argued that “anything on wheels should be classified as a stroller”. She wondered what he would have done if she got on the bus on roller skates. Would she be billed as a passenger or as a pram?
The woman in the fur coat and the Leicestershire woman on the bus are key clues to this mystery. Rolling suitcases existed decades before they were “invented” in 1972, but were considered niche products for women. And that a women’s product could make men’s lives easier or completely disrupt the entire global luggage industry was not an idea the market was ready to support then.
The resistance to the rolling suitcase had everything to do with gender. Sadow, the “official” inventor, described how difficult it was to convince American department store chains to sell it: “Back then, there was that macho feeling. The men carried luggage for their wives. It was… the natural thing to do, I guess.
Two assumptions about gender were at work here. The first was that no man would ever roll a suitcase because it was just “unmanly” to do so. The second concerned the mobility of women. Nothing stopped a woman from rolling a suitcase – she had no masculinity to prove. But women weren’t traveling alone, the industry assumed. If a woman was traveling, she would travel with a man who would then carry her bag for her. This is why the industry saw no commercial potential in the rolling suitcase. It took over 15 years for the invention to become widespread, even after Sadow patented it.
In the 1984 Hollywood movie Romancing the Stone, a rolling suitcase is presented as something of a silly feminine thing. Kathleen Turner’s character insists on taking her rolling suitcase into the jungle, much to the chagrin of Michael Douglas, who tries to save them from the bad guys, while hunting down a legendary gigantic emerald.
Then, in 1987, American pilot Robert Plath created the modern cabin bag. He turned Sadow’s suitcase on its side and shrunk it. In the 1980s, more and more women began to travel alone, without a man to carry their luggage. The rolling suitcase carried with it a dream of greater mobility for women.
Gradually, the rolling suitcase has become a feature of the arsenal of the modern businessman. We forgot the intense and very gendered resistance that the product had encountered. But we shouldn’t – because this story carries important lessons about innovation that we need to hear today.
We couldn’t see the genius of the rolling suitcase because it didn’t fit our dominant views on masculinity. Looking back, we find this bizarre. How could the predominant view of masculinity turn out to be more stubborn than the desire to earn money from the market? How could the raw idea that men have to carry heavy things prevent us from seeing the potential of a product that would transform an entire global industry?
But is it really that surprising? The world is full of people who would rather die than give up certain notions of masculinity. Doctrines such as “real men don’t eat vegetables”, “real men don’t get checked for minor things” and “real men don’t have sex with condoms” kill very real men every day. Our society’s ideas about masculinity are among our most inflexible ideas, and our culture often values the preservation of certain concepts of masculinity before life itself. In this context, such ideas are certainly powerful enough to curb technological innovation.
The rolling suitcase is far from the only example. When electric cars first appeared in the 1800s, they were considered “feminine” simply because they were slower and less dangerous. This has held back the size of the electric car market, especially in the United States, and allowed us to build a world for gasoline cars. When electric starters for gasoline cars were developed, they were also seen as something for women. The assumption was that only women demanded the kind of safety precautions that meant being able to start your car without having to start it at the risk of injury. Ideas about the genre also delayed our efforts to address the technological challenges of closed-car production, as it was considered “unmanly” to have a roof over your car.
Assumptions about masculinity today play a similar role when it comes to innovation around sustainability. For example, we often think of meat consumption and preferences for large cars – instead of traveling by public transport – as essential characteristics of masculinity. This slows down innovation and prevents us from imagining new lifestyles fueled by new technologies.
Maybe in the future we will laugh at our current struggle to get many men to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle, the same way we shake our heads at how unthinkable it was for a man packing his suitcase 40 years ago.
Ideas about gender also limit what we even think of as technology. We speak of the “Iron Age” and the “Bronze Age”. We could also speak of the “age of ceramics” and the “age of flax”, because these technologies were just as important. But technologies associated with women are not considered inventions in the same way as those associated with men.
The genre answers the riddle of why it took us 5,000 years to put wheels on suitcases. It might be easy to think that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes today. But many of the structural problems are still there. We still have male dominated industries that don’t want to deal with the fact that women influence 80% of all consumer decisions. Products are still built and designed with men in mind only and we have a financial system that stubbornly refuses to see the potential of women’s ideas.
Today less than 1% of UK venture capital goes to all-female teams. Of the very few women who receive funding, the overwhelming majority are white. Of course, venture capital is not everything – there are other ways to finance and expand innovation – but the fact that men, more or less, have a monopoly is certainly a symptom of a economy where women’s ideas are not heard.
The many economists and thinkers who reflected on the fact that we didn’t put wheels on a suitcase until 1972 were right to note that this story is a symptom of a bigger problem. It was just a slightly different problem than they imagined.
Mother of invention: How good ideas are ignored in an economy built for men by Katrine Marvsal is published by William Collins (£ 18.99). To support the Guardian, order your copy from guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.