Sliced Bread

New innovations are often described as the greatest thing since sliced bread. That’s a head-scratcher. Why is sliced bread so great as an innovation? Maybe because the origin of sliced bread is symbolic of many innovations.

The history of bread consumption starts the tale of this innovation. Bread was baked at home on loaf pans. Even if you bought bread in a store, it was sold as a loaf. When bread was consumed as toast or made into sandwiches, it had to be sliced. Slicing bread seems easy enough except the slice that you ended up with was often irregular. Bread knives dull easily and often the knife takes on more of a sawing action rather than cutting. The result is a mess. Now imagine cutting bread for sandwiches for the large families that were typical of the day. Purchased bread was even more of a problem since it was softer. When you tried to slice it, you were essentially crushing it.

Otto Rohwedder thought he had a solution. He developed a machine to cut bread into even slices. But like most innovations, there was a problem. The slices were prone to going stale. Rohwedder attempted to solve this problem by using hat pins to keep the slices together. But this turned out to be a disaster. Then Rohwedder added a wrapper to his machine which encased the newly sliced bread in wax paper.

Bakers were resistant to the slicer. Like most innovations, Rohwedder needed an early adopter to lead the way. He found such an adopter and sliced bread became an immediate success in the local area. This was 1928. But true innovations ultimately need a national/international champion.

The champion for sliced bread was the Wonder bread company. Wonder had the resources to sell bread nationally. Soon other national bread companies began to sell sliced bread. By 1933, sliced bread outsold whole loaf bread.

Innovations often go through a series of common steps:

  • Seeing the problem – Many innovations arise from problems that are known but accepted.
  • Being cranky – Knowing a problem exists isn’t enough for an innovation unless one or more persons became cranky enough to do something about it.
  • Developing ideas – This is the creative step. How can the problem be solved? Often the solution comes from people whose backgrounds are quite different from what you would expect. Rohwedder was a jeweler.
  • Refining the ideas – Most innovations have problems that need to be resolved. For example, Edison’s lightbulb only lasted for a few days.
  • Finding an early adopter – All innovations need someone to try out the idea to give confidence to those who are more risk averse.
  • Managing the growth – A number of innovations are overwhelmed by early success and don’t have the resources to manage the growth.
  • Sustaining the innovation – Most innovations have a short life span unless there is a plan to constantly upgrade them with new features.

Innovation is critical to society, not only in commercial endeavors but in all facets of society. What makes someone like Otto Rohwedder devote his life to making a bread slicer? Is it the promise of riches? Or an insatiable curiosity? Or stubbornness that insists there must be a better way? Or simply the adventure of doing something new? We don’t know the answers to these questions. Just imagine what our society would be if innovation went viral as a human trait.

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“And the reason is that until Wonder came along and figured out how to spread the idea of sliced bread, no one wanted it. That the idea of sliced bread… is not always about what the patent is like, or what the factory is life – it’s about can you get your idea to spread, or not.” – Seth Godin (Author and creator of the concept of Permission Marketing)

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