The rolling suitcase or how inventions only flourish when there is context

The rolling suitcase or how inventions only flourish when there is context

Inventions are, in many cases, projects that remain in the drawer or the meeting room because nobody bets on them. Because nobody understands that they are truly interesting inventions .

The paradigmatic example of this was the invention of suitcases with built-in wheels , which, despite being many decades behind, did not become a popular invention until the 1990s.

Northwest Airlines

In the 1990s, a Northwest Airlines pilot, Robert Plath , invented the successful Rollaboard model, which featured wheels as well as a rigid, foldable handle. It was an epidemic. Suddenly, everyone replaced their old suitcases with new ones.

However, the invention was not new: it had simply appeared at the right time. In 1972, for example, Bernard Sadow had already launched a suitcase on wheels, although it did not include a handle, but instead made it hang from a leather strap that, in practice, made the suitcase tend to shift sideways.

Luggage With Strap

But a century earlier, in 1887, there already seems to be a similar suitcase patent. And in a 1951 newspaper article, John Allay May explains his attempts to manufacture and sell a suitcase on wheels since 1932, as Robert J. Shiller transcribes in his book Economic Narratives :

And they laughed. I was getting very serious. But they laughed, all of them. When I explained a future application of the theory of wheels to any organization, they expressed themselves as if it produced a drowsy boredom (why not make the most of the wheel? Why haven’t we equipped people with wheels? ..) I estimate that I have introduced this concept to 1,500 people and 125 organizations. My wife got tired of listening to me in 1937. The only man who took me seriously was an inventor who lived for a while in my neighborhood. The problem is that no one took him seriously.

Nobody really knew why, finally, the suitcase with wheels curdled. Maybe it was something in the design. Or the rigid handle. But Shiller suspects that the secret is glamor :

In previous attempts, rolling suitcases were seen as a somewhat ridiculous artifact. His 1991 press advertisements linked the Rollaboard narrative to the airlines, which in 1990 were considered more glamorous than now. (…) The rolling suitcase epidemic was fueled when pilot crews and cabin crew widely adopted the Rollaboard model. Passengers would see aviation professionals, with their distinguished looks, walking through airports with their innovative suitcases.

At the end of the day, ideas are part more of an ecosystem than of a brain: if the ecosystem does not accompany, the idea not only takes longer to flourish, but to take root and begin to be in common use , which finally intervenes not in the propagation of the idea, but in its mere conception. For this reason, precisely, more innovative people live in cities than in the countryside.