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Why we put a man on the moon before we put wheels on suitcases

3 March 2019

7:00 AM

3 March 2019

7:00 AM

The Romans never invented the stirrup. It took 50 years after the invention of canned food for someone to invent the can opener. And we put a man on the moon before we put wheels on suitcases.

This seems silly. But it is worth understanding each invention in context: often, a concatenation of other events has to occur before an invention can become widely adopted.

The stirrup was of no use until the invention of the saddle-tree, which more evenly spread the rider’s weight across the horse’s back. The can opener had to wait for thinner cans: early tins were too hefty to submit to anything less than a chisel. In the case of wheeled luggage, the barrier may have been social acceptance. Luckily Robert Plath, who patented the two-wheeled Rollaboard in 1991, was a Boeing 747 pilot with Northwest Airlines, who began selling his invention to other pilots and crew. When passengers began asking to buy them, he started the Travelpro company.

Was Plath lucky in selling to flight professionals first? After all, had its earliest users not been dashing pilots but elderly tourists, the wheeled case might have become stigmatised as something only for oldies – like those tartan shopping wheelers in the 1970s.

This path-dependence explains why, when asked my predictions of which technology will be important in ten years’ time, I repeatedly cite video-conferencing. Since the technology has been around for decades, this makes me look a bit daft — you’re supposed to mention driverless cars or blockchain. Nevertheless, video-conferencing still has the potential to change the worlds of work, travel, land use and time use more than any driverless car. It just requires a few stars to fall into alignment first:


1) The realisation that email is utter crap. Email is essentially a hamster wheel: it makes people feel busy while getting nowhere. A consensus that could be achieved in five minutes via video becomes protracted by email into hours of typing.

2) Near universal access to fast broadband at home and work — fibre is essential because it is fast upstream, meaning you won’t appear on screen pixellating like a paedophile in a Channel 4 documentary. A video call is only as good as its most technologically challenged participant.

3) A small personal investment in technology. Don’t just use your laptop or mobile phone. Audio quality matters as much as video. Hence you must use headphones, ideally a stout pair of over-the-ear jobbies for immersive effect. A quality microphone also helps.

4) A change in work patterns — e.g. work early but commute late. For a physical 8 a.m. meeting, I have to get up at 6 a.m. But an 8 a.m. video call is fine. I can sling a cardigan over my pyjamas, and be ready in five minutes. Below the desk, anything goes (for a more professional vibe, I plump for 40 denier Wolford Neons and Manolo Blahnik suede slingbacks).

5) Simple habit. Try participating in three video calls in one week and you will find the fourth really easy. What’s really needed to kick-start this technology is a two-week Tube strike, or an ebola outbreak.

6) Punctuality. A useful tip. When scheduling a videoconference or a phone meeting, give the time as 3.50 p.m for 4 p.m., as if it’s a dinner party. This gives people a few minutes to get their technology working and the pleasantries done before the meeting starts in earnest.

7) A challenge to the dogma of open-plan offices, which kill conversations they are designed to create.

8) Other incremental improvements. I know of one significant invention in the pipeline, but it’s secret. You’ll be the first to hear.


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