Mystery of the wheelie suitcase: how gender stereotypes held back the history of invention
In 1970 an American ABS luggage executive unscrewed four castors from a wardrobe and fixed them to a suitcase. Then he put a strap on his contraption and trotted it gleefully around his house.
This was how Bernard Sadow invented the world’s first rolling suitcase. It happened roughly 5,000 years after the invention of the wheel and barely one year after Nasa managed to put two men on the surface of the moon using the largest rocket ever built. We had driven an electric rover with wheels on a foreign heavenly body and even invented the hamster wheel. So why did it take us so long to put wheels on suitcases? This has become something of a classic mystery of innovation.
Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Shiller discusses the matter 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-footed thing: how the “blindingly obvious” can stare us expectantly in the face for an eternity.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is another world-renowned thinker who has pondered the mystery. Having lugged heavy suitcases through airports and railway stations for years, he was astonished by his own unquestioning acceptance of the status quo. Taleb sees the rolling suitcase as a parable of how we often tend to ignore the simplest solutions. As humans, we strive for the difficult, grandiose and complex. Technology – such as having wheels on suitcases – may appear obvious in hindsight, but that doesn’t mean it was obvious.
Similarly, in management and innovation literature, the late invention of the rolling suitcase often appears as somewhat of a warning. A reminder of our limitations as innovators.
But there is one factor that these thinkers have missed. I stumbled upon it when I was researching my book on women and innovation. I found a photo in a newspaper archive of a woman in a fur coat pulling a suitcase on wheels. It made me stop in my tracks because it was from 1952, 20 years before the official “invention” of the rolling suitcase. Fascinated, I kept looking. Soon, a completely different story about our limitations as innovators was rolling out.
The modern suitcase was born at the end of the 19th century. When mass tourism first took off, Europe’s large railway stations were inundated with porters, who would help passengers with their bags. But, by the middle of the 20th century, the porters were dwindling in number, and passengers increasingly carried their own PP luggage.