Astronaut Neil Armstrong landed on the moon before anyone thought to place wheels on luggage. Neil Armstrong landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. The first patent granted for wheeled luggage was issued in 1972 to luggage company owner Bernard Sadow. While at a Caribbean airport, where Bernard no doubt suffering lactic acid discomfort from carrying multiple suitcases, observed a man effortlessly moving a piece of machinery on a wheeled platform. An idea was born.
Months later, Sadow was traveling from one retail store to another attempting to convince owners to purchase his new product. Though his idea was mocked in the beginning, he eventually persuaded Macy’s department store to sell his newly patented “rolling luggage”. Sales were flat at-best.
In 1987, Northwest Orient Airlines pilot Bob Plath grew weary of lugging his luggage through the ever-expanding terminals around the country. He devised a retractable-handle, two-wheel “Rollarboard” with which Captain Plath launched his luggage company Travelpro. The idea took off.
What took us so long to put wheels on luggage?
The wheel was invented in the 4th century BC in Lower Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), where the Sumerian people inserted rotating axles into solid discs of wood. Why did it take six thousand years between the invention of the wheel and its retrospectively common-sense application onto the suitcase? Think of the multi-billions of hours spent by weary travelers like myself schlepping luggage through seemingly endless corridors (e.g., walking between Atlanta’s new international terminal and domestic terminal check-in is 1.67 miles).
We humans lack imagination, to the point of not even having awareness what tomorrow’s important things look like. We have replaced curiosity with creativity. We misunderstand application for implementation.
The Mayans have a similar story. They had wheels but the wheels were placed on toys made for young children. They did not make the leap to application. The large slabs of stone used to build their pyramids were built on the backs of human labor (lactic acid) rolling them uphill on logs of wood.
Same is true for the first century Greeks as mathematician, Heron of Alexandria, invented the Aeolipile, the first known device to transform steam into rotary motion. In the 9th century AD during the Tang dynasty, gunpowder was invented yet was used by alchemists to create the elixir of life. It wasn’t used as a conduit of weaponry for years.
Today, there exists endless examples of dislocations between discovery and implementation:
- Treadmill - were used in prisons in the early Victorian Britain as a method of exerting hard labor.
- Bubble Wrap - was initially conceived as 3D wallpaper.
- Play Doh - a soft, pliable compound used for wiping soot from wallpaper.
- Rogaine - Minoxidil, which is the active ingredient in Rogaine, was originally developed as an oral medication to treat high blood pressure.
I realize that implementation does not necessarily progress from invention. It requires circumstances, chance, and a general curiosity of the potential optionality of the things surrounding us. Perhaps also a healthy dose of self-confidence in grasping what you have on your hands.
From mobile phones to post-it-notes to Uber there exists a whole group of things that we can classify as being once partially created. As Bernard Sadow sadly learned, taking the vision from partially created into the fully created and then implemented is all the difference in the world. Looking at history, this requires an enormous amount of being at the right place at the right time. It also demands a visionary to figure out what to do with a discovery, a vision that they and only they can have.