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