The Story Of The Wheelie Suitcase And The Importance Of Implementing Innovation

Invention can be the gateway to success--but implementation is even more vital. A look at the wheeled suitcase and the limits of innovation.

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors; and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it "antifragile."

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance...even our own existence as a species on this planet. And antifragility determines the boundary between what is living and organic (or complex), say, the human body, and what is inert, say, a physical object like the stapler on your desk.

Consider the story of the wheeled suitcase.

I carry a large wheeled suitcase mostly filled with books on almost all my travels. It is heavy (books that interest me when I travel always happen to be in hardcover).

In June 2012, I was rolling that generic, heavy, book-filled suitcase outside the JFK's international terminal and, looking at the small wheels at the bottom of the case and the metal handle that helps pull it, I suddenly remembered the days when I had to haul my book-stuffed luggage through the very same terminal, with regular stops to rest and let the lactic acid flow out of my sore arms. I could not afford a porter, and even if I could, I would not have felt comfortable doing it. I have been going through the same terminal for three decades, with and without wheels, and the contrast was eerie. It struck me how lacking in imagination we are: we had been putting our suitcases on top of a cart with wheels, but nobody thought of putting tiny wheels directly under the suitcase.

Can you imagine that it took close to six thousand years between the invention of the wheel (by, we assume, the Mesopotamians) and this brilliant implementation (by some luggage maker in a drab industrial suburb)? And billions of hours spent by travelers like myself schlepping luggage through corridors full of rude customs officers.

Worse, this took place three decades or so after we put a man on the moon. And consider all this sophistication used in sending someone into space, and its totally negligible impact on my life, and compare it to this lactic acid in my arms, pain in my lower back, soreness in the palms of my hands, and sense of helplessness in front of a long corridor. Indeed, though extremely consequential, we are talking about something trivial: a very simple technology.

But the technology is only trivial retrospectively--not prospectively. All those brilliant minds, usually disheveled and rumpled, who go to faraway conferences to discuss Gödel, Shmodel, Riemann’s Conjecture, quarks, shmarks, had to carry their suitcases through airport terminals, without thinking about applying their brain to such an insignificant transportation problem. And even if these brilliant minds had applied their supposedly overdeveloped brains to such an obvious and trivial problem, they probably would not have gotten anywhere.

This tells us something about the way we map the future. We humans lack imagination, to the point of not even knowing what tomorrow’s important things look like. We use randomness to spoon-feed us with discoveries--which is why antifragility is necessary.

The story of the wheel itself is even more humbling than that of the suitcase: we keep being reminded that the Mesoamericans did not invent the wheel. They did. They had wheels. But the wheels were on small toys for children. It was just like the story of the suitcase: the Mayans and Zapotecs did not make the leap to the application. They used vast quantities of human labor, corn maize, and lactic acid to move gigantic slabs of stone in the flat spaces ideal for pushcarts and chariots where they built their pyramids. They even rolled them on logs of wood. Meanwhile, their small children were rolling their toys on the stucco floors.

The same story holds for the steam engine: the Greeks had an operating version of it, for amusement, of course: the aeolipyle, a turbine that spins when heated, as described by Hero of Alexandria. But it took the Industrial Revolution for us to discover this earlier discovery. Just as great geniuses invent their predecessors, practical innovations create their theoretical ancestry.

There is something sneaky in the process of discovery and implementation--something people usually call evolution. We are managed by small (or large) accidental changes, more accidental than we admit. We talk big but hardly have any imagination, except for a few visionaries who seem to recognize the optionality of things. We need some randomness to help us out--with a double dose of antifragility. For randomness plays a role at two levels: the invention and the implementation. The first point is not overly surprising, though we play down the role of chance, especially when it comes to our own discoveries.

But it took me a lifetime to figure out the second point: implementation does not necessarily proceed from invention. It, too, requires luck and circumstances. The history of medicine is littered with the strange sequence of discovery of a cure followed, much later, by the implementation--as if the two were completely separate ventures, the second harder, much harder, than the first. Just taking something to market requires struggling against a collection of naysayers, administrators, empty suits, formalists, mountains of details that invite you to drown, and one’s own discouraged mood on occasion. In other words, to identify the option (again, there is this option blindness). This is where all you need is the wisdom to realize what you have on your hands.

There is a category of things that we can call half-invented, and taking the half-invented into the invented is often the real breakthrough. Sometimes you need a visionary to figure out what to do with a discovery, a vision that he and only he can have. For instance, take the computer mouse, or what is called the graphical interface: it took Steve Jobs to put it on your desk, then laptop--only he had a vision of the dialectic between images and humans--later adding sounds to a trilectic. The things, as they say, that are “staring at us.”

Related:How To Build An Antifragile Career.

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From the Book, ANTIFRAGILE by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Copyright 2012 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb spends most of his time as a flâneur, meditating in cafés across the planet. A former trader, he is currently Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University. He is the author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, which has spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list and has become an intellectual, social, and cultural touchstone.

[Image: Flickr user Lars Plougmann]

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8 Comments

  • Steve Chayer

    I enjoyed the story and it's perspective but I wish the author had included the name of the inventor of the wheeled suitcase. I thought it a little lazy that he did not. His title and opening created a natural curiosity and thus an anticipation which disappointingly was never satisfied. 

  • Phillip McAllister

    Are you kidding me?  Elevating wheels on suitcases to the level of technology that landed men on the moon? How outrageously intellectually dishonest.

    How's about people just stop shlepping all of their crap with them wherever they go? 

    I've had it with all the noise and the confusion and the clatter and the clutter of those damn things on trains and on buses and on sidewalks and on escalators. In front of me. Behind me. Alongside of me.

    They are as useless to me as "rap" music.  

  • bleitten

    Ironically, the invention of wheeled luggage didn't have much to do with moving luggage, but books! A pilot developed the first practical wheeled carryon to transport those large flight books that all pilots had to carry and now can be kept on a tablet.  Other pilots and flight attendants liked the idea and kept asking for their own and it began to be used for luggage.  At the time, I was patent attorney for a major luggage company who was approached to license the technology.  The CEO said "It'll never catch on" and spent the rest of his tenure at the company scrambling to catch up with the Eiffel brand that was developed by that pilot!

  • Jason Williams

    Now that we have wheeled suitcases, it amazes me nobody has stepped up with a proper cupholder on the top of these wheeled carry-on bags.  This is a much needed functional value-add for travelers.

  • Dave Linabury

    That's not the antonym of fragile. The author is correct; there is no direct antonym of fragile. Only indirect ones like 'unbreakable', 'rugged' or to your point, 'sturdy'. None of them address the opposite of all that fragile means.

  • Cristian Asher

    There's a logical flaw in much of this reasoning: the assumption that the technologies which work best for us have universal applicability. In the days when travel was long term, involved multiple bags and trunks, and was often facilitated by porters and carts, wheeled luggage would have been superfluous. Only when trips became shorter and luggage sizes severely limited did wheeled bags become useful--flight attendants, who have always traveled in this way (short hops, limits on baggage) have had wheeled bags for a long time. Similarly, those earlier societies that didn't apply toy technology to adult projects had other solutions to their transportation problems--the fact that those solutions seem unsatisfactory to us speaks only of our parochialism, it does not reflect on the efficiency of those systems. The study of how technology and processes develop is fascinating, but to assume that our current way of doing things is somehow optimized or superior is to misunderstand the very nature of evolution.