Mystery of the wheelie suitcase how gender article suitcase stereotypes held back the history of invention Life and style The Guardian
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Mystery of the wheelie suitcase how gender article suitcase stereotypes held back the history of invention Life and style The Guardian
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. 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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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 luggage. 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. 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. In 1970 an American 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. 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 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.” 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. article suitcase Would she be charged as a passenger or as a pram? 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? 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. 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. Mystery of the wheelie suitcase how gender article suitcase stereotypes held back the history of invention Life and style The Guardian
Mystery of the wheelie suitcase how gender article suitcase stereotypes held back the history of invention Life and style The Guardian
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