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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.

    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 and 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

ABS+PC 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 on 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.

    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.

    Then, in 1987, US pilot Robert Plath created the modern cabin bag. He turned Sadow’s suitcase on its side and

made it smaller. In the 1980s, more women started to travel alone, without a man to carry their

spinner luggage set. 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 and 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.

    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” and “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, and 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 and less dangerous. This held back the size of the

electric car market, especially in the US, and 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 and preferences for large cars – instead of travel by public

transport – are essential features of masculinity. This holds innovation back and 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” and “the

bronze age”. We could also talk about “the ceramic age” and “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 and designed with only men in mind 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. 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 and 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 and 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.

     This article was amended on 8 July 2021. Bernard Sadow invented the rolling suitcase in 1970, not 1972,

which was the year the invention was patented.

    Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men by Katrine Mar?al is published by

William Collins (£18.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may

apply.

    More than 1.5 million readers, from 180 countries, have recently taken the step to support us financially –

keeping us open to all, and fiercely independent.

    With no shareholders or billionaire owner, we can set our own agenda and provide trustworthy journalism that’

s free from commercial and political influence, offering a counterweight to the spread of misinformation. When it

’s never mattered more, we can investigate and challenge without fear or favour.

    Unlike many others, Guardian journalism is available for everyone to read, regardless of what they can afford

to pay. We do this because we believe in information equality. Greater numbers of people can keep track of global

events, understand their impact on people and communities, and become inspired to take meaningful action.

    We aim to offer readers a comprehensive, international perspective on critical events shaping our world –

from the Black Lives Matter movement, to the new American administration, Brexit, and the world's slow

emergence from a global pandemic. We are committed to upholding our reputation for urgent, powerful reporting on

the climate emergency, and made the decision to reject advertising from fossil fuel companies, divest from the oil

and gas industries, and set a course to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.

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