Product driven companies, inventors from all backgrounds and market researchers have long studied how some innovations take off while others fizzle. So, why do some innovations gain traction? Given two similar but competing inventions, what factors lead to one eclipsing the other? Why do some pioneering ideas and inventions fail only to succeed from a different instigator years, sometimes decades, later? Answers to these questions would undoubtedly make many inventors household names, but as is the case in most human endeavors, the process of innovation is murky and more of an art than a science.
Author and columnist Matt Ridley offers some possible answers to the conundrum.
Bill Moggridge, who invented the laptop computer in 1982, died last week. His idea of using a hinge to attach a screen to a keyboard certainly caught on big, even if the first model was heavy, pricey and equipped with just 340 kilobytes of memory. But if Mr. Moggridge had never lived, there is little doubt that somebody else would have come up with the idea.
The phenomenon of multiple discovery is well known in science. Innovations famously occur to different people in different places at the same time. Whether it is calculus (Newton and Leibniz), or the planet Neptune (Adams and Le Verrier), or the theory of natural selection (Darwin and Wallace), or the light bulb (Edison, Swan and others), the history of science is littered with disputes over bragging rights caused by acts of simultaneous discovery.
As Kevin Kelly argues in his book “What Technology Wants,” there is an inexorability about technological evolution, expressed in multiple discovery, that makes it look as if technological innovation is an autonomous process with us as its victims rather than its directors.
Yet some inventions seem to have occurred to nobody until very late. The wheeled suitcase is arguably such a, well, case. Bernard Sadow applied for a patent on wheeled baggage in 1970, after a Eureka moment when he was lugging his heavy bags through an airport while a local worker effortlessly pushed a large cart past. You might conclude that Mr. Sadow was decades late. There was little to stop his father or grandfather from putting wheels on bags.
Mr. Sadow’s bags ran on four wheels, dragged on a lead like a dog. Seventeen years later a Northwest Airlines pilot, Robert Plath, invented the idea of two wheels on a suitcase held vertically, plus a telescopic handle to pull it with. This “Rollaboard,” now ubiquitous, also feels as if it could have been invented much earlier.
Or take the can opener, invented in the 1850s, eight decades after the can. Early 19th-century soldiers and explorers had to make do with stabbing bayonets into food cans. “Why doesn’t somebody come up with a wheeled cutter?” they must have muttered (or not) as they wrenched open the cans.
Perhaps there’s something that could be around today but hasn’t been invented and that will seem obvious to future generations. Or perhaps not. It’s highly unlikely that brilliant inventions are lying on the sidewalk ignored by the millions of entrepreneurs falling over each other to innovate. Plenty of terrible ideas are tried every day.
Understanding why inventions take so long may require mentally revisiting a long-ago time. For a poorly paid Napoleonic soldier who already carried a decent bayonet, adding a can opener to his limited kitbag was probably a waste of money and space. Indeed, going back to wheeled bags, if you consider the abundance of luggage porters with carts in the 1960s, the ease of curbside drop-offs at much smaller airports and the heavy iron casters then available, 1970 seems about the right date for the first invention of rolling luggage.