Mystery of the wheelie suitcase: how gender stereotypes held back the history of invention | Life style

In 1972 an American luggage executive unscrewed four castors from a wardrobe fixed them to a suitcase. Then he put a strap on his contraption 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 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 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 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 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 complex. Technology such as having wheels on suitcases may appear obvious in hindsight, but that doesn’t mean it was obvious.

Similarly, in management 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 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, passengers increasingly carried their own luggage.

An archive photograph of women pulling along their own luggage at London’s St Pancras train station during a porter strike. Photograph: Ann Ward/Associated Newspape/REX

Advertisements for products applying the technology of the wheel to the suitcase can be found in British newspapers as early as the 1940s. These are not suitcases on wheels, exactly, but a gadget known as “the portable porter” – a wheeled device that can be strapped on to a suitcase. But it never really caught on.

In 1967, a Leicestershire woman wrote a sharply worded letter to her local newspaper complaining that a bus conductor had forced her to buy an additional ticket for her rolling suitcase. The conductor argued that “anything on wheels should be classed as a pushchair”. She wondered what he would have done if she had boarded the bus wearing roller-skates. Would she be charged as a passenger or as a pram?

The woman in the fur coat the Leicestershire woman on the bus are the vital clues to this mystery. Suitcases with wheels existed decades before they were “invented” in 1972, but were considered niche products for women. And that a product for women could make life easier for men or completely disrupt the whole global luggage industry was not an idea the market was then ready to entertain.

Resistance to the rolling suitcase had everything to do with gender. Sadow, the “official” inventor, described how difficult it was to get any US department store chains to sell it: “At this time, there was this macho feeling. Men used to carry 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 simply “unmanly” to do so. The second was about the mobility of women. There was nothing preventing a woman from rolling a suitcase – she had no masculinity to prove. But women didn’t travel alone, the industry assumed. If a woman travelled, she would travel with a man who would then carry her bag for her. This is why the industry couldn’t see any commercial potential in the rolling suitcase. It took more than 15 years for the invention to go mainstream, even after Sadow had patented it.

Kathleen Turner with her wheeled suitcase in Romancing the Stone.
Kathleen Turner with her wheeled suitcase in Romancing the Stone. Photograph: Album/Alamy

In the 1984 Hollywood film Romancing the Stone, a rolling suitcase is featured as something of a silly feminine thing. Kathleen Turner’s character insists on bringing her wheeled suitcase to the jungle, to the great annoyance of Michael Douglas, who is trying to save them from villains, while tracking down a legendary gigantic emerald.

The wheel thing … a pilot at Philadelphia International Airport in 2004.
The wheel thing … a pilot at Philadelphia international airport in 2004. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Then, in 1987, US pilot Robert Plath created the modern cabin bag. He turned Sadow’s suitcase on its side made it smaller. In the 1980s, more women started to travel alone, without a man to carry their luggage. The wheeled suitcase carried with it a dream of greater mobility for women.

Bit by bit, the rolling suitcase became a feature of the modern businessman’s arsenal. We forgot all about the intense very gendered resistance the product had encountered. But we shouldn’t because this story carries some important lessons about innovation that we need to hear today.

Ben Stiller in Zoolander.
Ben Stiller in Zoolander. Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images

We couldn’t see the genius of the wheeled suitcase because it didn’t align with our prevailing views on masculinity. In hindsight, we find this bizarre. How could the predominant view on masculinity turn out to be more stubborn than the market’s desire to make money? How could the crude idea that men must carry heavy things prevent us from seeing the potential in a product that would come to transform an entire global industry?

But is it really that surprising? The world is full of people who would rather die than let go of certain notions of masculinity. Doctrines like “real men don’t eat vegetables”, “real men don’t get check-ups for minor things” “real men don’t have sex with condoms” kill very real men every single day. Our society’s ideas on masculinity are some of our most unyielding ideas, our culture often values the preservation of certain concepts of masculinity over life itself. In this context, such ideas are certainly powerful enough to hold back technological innovation.

The rolling suitcase is far from the only example. When electric cars first emerged in the 1800s they came to be seen as “feminine” simply because they were slower less dangerous. This held back the size of the electric car market, especially in the US, contributed to us building a world for petrol-driven cars. When electric starters for petrol-driven cars were developed they were also considered to be something for the ladies. The assumption was that only women were demanding the type of safety measures that meant being able to start your car without having to crank it at risk of injury. Ideas about gender similarly delayed our efforts to meet the technological challenges of producing closed cars because it was seen as “unmanly” to have a roof on your car.

Assumptions about masculinity play a similar role today in relation to innovation around sustainability. For example, we often think that consumption of meat preferences for large cars – instead of travel by public transport – are essential features of masculinity. This holds innovation back prevents us from imagining new ways of living powered by new technologies.

Perhaps in the future we will laugh at our current struggle to get many men to adopt a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, in the same way that we shake our heads at how unthinkable it was for a man to wheel his suitcase 40 years ago.

Ideas about gender also limit what we even count as technology. We talk about “the iron age” “the bronze age”. We could also talk about “the ceramic age” “the flax age”, since these technologies were just as important. But technologies associated with women are not considered to be inventions in the same way that those associated with men are.

Gender answers the riddle of why it took 5,000 years for us to put wheels on suitcases. It’s perhaps easy to think that we wouldn’t make similar mistakes today. But many of the structural problems are still here. We still have male-dominated industries not interested in dealing with the fact that women influence 80% of all consumer decisions. Products are still being built designed with only men in mind 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. Among the very few women who do get funded, a very large majority are white. Of course, venture capital isn’t everything – there are other ways to fund scale innovation – but the fact that men, more or less, have a monopoly is certainly a symptom of an economy where women’s ideas are not heard.

The many economists thinkers who have thought about how we didn’t put wheels on suitcases until 1972 were right to note that this story is a symptom of a larger problem. It was just a slightly different problem than the one they imagined it to be.

Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men by Katrine Marçal is published by William Collins (£18.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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