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"This is the best thing since sliced bread"


We often hear this expression, "This is the best thing since sliced bread."

Except, of course, people didn't necessarily think that sliced bread was all that good at the start. Like almost everything else, they had to be convinced to try it. 

Sliced bread is a surprisingly new invention. The first loaf of bread sliced by machine to be sold only came on July 6, 1928. By then, we were already using refrigerators and driving cars, and we had fought a world war with fighter jets. 

But no sliced bread until Otto Rohwedder introduced the "power-driven, multi-bladed" bread slices at his friend Frank Bench's Chilicothe Baking Company, in Missouri USA.  


As sliced bread was made available, an advertisement(above) was bought for the local newspaper - The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune. Interestingly, the advertisements mentioned that:

some people might find sliced bread “startling,” the typical housewife could expect “a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows. So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.” 


There are some interesting implications from this little story of sliced bread


  1. Functional Fixedness. Even for something "as great as sliced bread", we needed to be assured that it would work. Note the line in the advertisement - "that some people might find sliced bread startling" - in introducing the bread-slicer,  Rohwedder had also faced much scepticism from fellow bakers, who thought it wouldn't work.

    A big reason why it is always difficult to introduce something new, even when it seems like a very good idea, is functional fixedness. Once something is presented to us in a certain form, we find it very difficult to imagine how it can be used or designed in another way.

    There are some incredible examples of this. Read more about The Candle Problem. Or how wheels on luggage was only introduced in 1970 -  after we made it to the moon! You can think of other examples of this in your current life. I just saw a presentation about how people are damaging their ears using cotton swabs to remove ear wax. The cotton swab is intrinsically terrible for ear wax removal but has remained unchanged for a century. But my favourite example is a quote commonly attributed to Henry Ford, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” There is no evidence that Henry Ford ever said the exact words in the quote, but it was nonetheless a point he regularly made in his interviews - that customers can easily describe a problem they're having - they need something faster, more convenient, cheaper, more portable. But they can only see solutions as incremental improvements to the current model, and not how the solution itself could take a different form. 

  2. Even the obvious things need advertising. We shouldn't be too surprised by this. Think of the biggest brands in the world - Coca Cola, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc. All of these brands still do a significant amount of advertising. This even applies to non-corporates. Take governments for example: you would imagine that because governments formulate and carry out policies that affect everyone's lives, there would be no need to advertise. But think back on your own local politicians and election campaigns - it is essentially advertising. So it's mostly untrue that if the product is good, there is no need for advertising. No matter how good a product is, people almost always need to be reminded. You'll never expect that we had to be convinced to used electricity as well!

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