I am fascinated by innovation. And, I mean all innovation, not just the kind that sends people to the moon or increases computing power a bajillion fold every six weeks. I mean even really simple, but often game-changing innovation, like wheels on suitcases (duh), which didn’t seem to hit until the mid 1980s. In fact, without really thinking about it, I started a series on innovation when I wrote about David Glick’s invention of the dessert sandwich and the German innovation around serving beer. Hey, not to get too mushy here, but I honestly believe that without innovation, we kind of stagnate as a culture. For that reason, I have written (mostly in my head; some on the computer) a blog entry on US innovation and how the current administration pays lip service to the importance of innovation for job creation while simultaneously implementing the most anti-innovation policies of any presidential administration in my or perhaps anyone’s lifetime. But, just as I get serious about posting this manifesto, I hear my buddy Andy Brusman saying, “stick to the funny stuff, Bruce. Stay away from politics.” So, with that in mind, I have decided to postpone (not cancel) the aforementioned treatise and focus on….French innovation. It’s appropriate because I’m in France.
When I wrote about German beer innovation, I genuflected ever so slightly in the direction of French innovation when I acknowledged that the older I get, the more appreciation I have for the 35 hour work week with a two hour lunch, including good wine, in the middle of your 7 hour work day. If you’re OK with perennial unemployment rates in the mid-teens (I think Obama can get us there with the 40 hour week; no mid-day wine), the French have a pretty solid model. And, they came up with it all on their own. Credit where credit is due.
That said, as I travel through France, I still find it to be a country largely lacking the innovative gene. As Exhibit A, I offer the shower door. When I traveled in France as a grad student in the summer of 1985, it was very common for the showers in hotels (if there was one; some hotels hadn’t yet discovered the shower at all) to have no shower curtain or door whatsoever. This seemed very impractical to me. You would take your shower, dry off, then have to soak up the monsoon in the middle of the bathroom. I was working on a PhD in engineering at the time and remember thinking, “someone needs to come up with a way to keep the water in the shower…..wait, it’s called a shower curtain….”
Fast forward 25+ years and here I am back in Paris with my family. Upon arrival and with great anticipation, I opened the bathroom door in the Marriott Rive Gauche, in the hopes that French innovation had come up with a way to keep the water in the tub during the shower. And, what did I find? The HALF SHOWER DOOR.
Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. With 25 years of intense study and research (along with some good models to copy), the best the French could come up with is keeping HALF the water in the tub. I still had to mop the floor after my shower. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Perhaps this isn’t a deficiency in innovation. Indeed, maybe the French shower door engineers came up with the concept of the full shower door, but then it turned out that it takes a full work day to install one. And, because the French only work half days, there was no way to get a full shower door installed. Practically speaking, they had to settle for the half door….and a bottle of red wine.
So, as I walked around Paris my first day here, I continued to ponder this question of French innovation. It all became clear to me in the Louvre when I saw Jacques-Louis David’s beautiful painting: “Les Sabines Arretant Le Combat Entre Les Romans et Les Sabins,” which as nearly as I can tell translates into English as “18th Century Dudes Fighting Naked with Swords.”
And, this is my point. If we go back to the time of David, as best represented in his art, the French had not yet come up with the innovative idea that if you’re going to get into a sword fight, put on a pair of pants. Sorry, but I thought that would have been obvious. Case closed.