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Baggage & innovation
An analogy with our time.
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Please humour me with this analogy.
The year was 1970, and Bernard D. Sadow, a vice president at a Massachusetts company specializing in luggage and coats, was struck by inspiration while struggling with two heavy suitcases at an airport after a family vacation in Aruba. Watching a worker glide a heavy machine effortlessly on a wheeled skid at the customs area, Sadow turned to his wife and said, "That's what we need for luggage." His idea was simple yet revolutionary – add wheels to luggage.
Upon returning to work, Sadow removed casters from a wardrobe trunk and mounted them on a large travel suitcase. He added a front strap, pulled the suitcase, and it worked: "Rolling Luggage," was born. However, the path to acceptance was far from smooth.
"I showed it to every department store in New York City and everybody said I was crazy. 'Nobody's going to pull a piece of luggage with wheels on it.' People just didn't think in those terms,"
Sadow's patent noted that air travel was replacing trains as the primary mode of long-distance travel. Air terminals presented new challenges for handling luggage, and the cumbersome process had become one of the major difficulties for air passengers.
Innovation is a dynamic force that weaves itself intricately into the fabric of culture and society. A journey through the evolution of wheeled luggage unveils a compelling narrative that highlights the profound relationship between innovation and the world in which it emerges.
Until the 1970s, the privilege of travel was reserved for the wealthy. Those who embarked on journeys were not burdened with carrying their own bags – they had staff to manage their luggage. The very notion of travellers lifting their own belongings was considered outrageous. This divide between buyers and users created a significant disconnect in the market.
This cultural perspective mirrored other instances of slow adoption, such as the domestic use of electricity. Homeowners seldom cared about the labour involved in lighting or cooking, as these tasks were primarily handled by their staff. The utility of innovation often hinges on aligning with the prevailing culture and societal norms.
Sadow's innovation, though a significant step forward, did not entirely change the landscape of travel. As the travel market expanded, it became evident that his creation was less than ideal for solo travellers and quick trips.
The turning point arrived in 1987 when US pilot Robert Plath unveiled the modern cabin bag. As a frequent traveller, Plath understood the true needs of people on the move. He reimagined Sadow's concept, creating a smaller, upright suitcase with a longer telescopic handle. This innovation made moving luggage easier than ever, eliminating the need for travellers to bend over.
With Plath's creation, wheeled luggage finally took flight, revolutionizing how we carry our belongings.
Interestingly, neither Sadow nor Plath can claim the title of the first inventor of wheeled luggage. That honour belongs to Alfred Joseph Krupa, a Polish/Croatian painter, amateur boxer, martial arts practitioner, and prolific inventor. In 1954, Krupa affixed wheels to a bag, demonstrating that innovation often precedes its time.
However, Krupa's timing was not conducive to global recognition. He lacked the right connections and was born in a country without a clear path to the global market. Additionally, his multitude of ideas prevented him from focusing on one specific innovation.
Innovation is not solely about the technology itself. It is an intricate dance between cultural shifts, societal needs, and the perfect timing. The wheels on our luggage represent more than just convenience; they symbolize the resilience, vision, and adaptability of innovators who change the way we experience the world.
In the world of innovation, as in life, the right idea, at the right time, can revolutionize how we live…and, in this case, travel.
The evolution of rolling luggage is an insightful analogy for innovation. Just as travellers initially resisted the idea of dragging their luggage on wheels due to cultural and societal norms, innovation often faces resistance when it challenges established practices or perceptions. In the case of rolling luggage, it took a shift in travel culture, the advent of air travel, and the rise of solo and business travellers to drive its acceptance.
Just as Robert Plath's modern cabin bag, which addressed the limitations of earlier designs, became a game-changer, innovations that address real-world needs are more likely to succeed.
I wanted to recount this story because I think it is prescient in relation to AI and the time that we are in.
Resistance to Change: Just as travellers were initially resistant to the idea of rolling luggage, society can be resistant to change when it comes to adopting new technologies like AI. People may fear job displacement, privacy concerns, or simply be hesitant to embrace something unfamiliar.
Cultural and Societal Context: The success of rolling luggage was heavily influenced by cultural and societal factors. Similarly, AI's adoption and acceptance are deeply shaped by cultural, ethical, and social considerations. AI technologies must align with the values and needs of society to gain acceptance.
Timing Matters: The timing of an innovation can be critical. Just as the 1970s marked a shift in travel culture that was conducive to rolling luggage, AI has seen rapid advancements due to the confluence of factors like increased data availability, computational power, and demand for automation.
Real-World Applications: Robert Plath's modern cabin bag succeeded because it addressed the practical needs of travellers. Similarly, AI innovations that solve real-world problems, such as automating routine tasks, enhancing healthcare, or improving customer experiences, are more likely to gain traction.
Unsung Pioneers: In both rolling luggage and AI, there are often unsung pioneers whose innovations may precede their time. These individuals may not receive the recognition they deserve but contribute significantly to the evolution of this technology. People like John Von Neumann, Alan Turing, Allen Newell, Herbert A. Simon, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsk, Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton, and Yann LeCun - but today we hear Sam Altman and Demis Hassabis.
Continuous Evolution: Just as rolling luggage continued to evolve with innovations like the Rollaboard, AI is an ever-evolving field. AI technologies, from machine learning to natural language processing, continue to advance, creating new opportunities and challenges.
….and sometimes you underinvest. I kick myself on every trip with our 2 wheel suitcases when I should have spent the $50 to get 4 wheels.
Innovation is not just about technology; it's a complex interplay of culture, societal acceptance, timing, practicality, and the ability to address real-world needs. AI has the potential to reshape industries and improve our lives if it aligns with our values and serves our needs.
Stay Curious - and don’t forget to be amazing,
PS. Death tolls from wars and natural disasters are escalating. Let’s hope and pray for a turnaround.
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