In its time, sliced bread was as good an innovation as any when it came to helping out everyday living. Image Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Last week, I overheard a conversation in the street. A man – late 60’s I’d say – had received an Alexa device for his birthday and was clearly delighted.

“It’s the best thing since sliced bread,” he beamed, as he and his friend strolled along. It made me smile. I hadn’t heard that saying in a while, but it brought back a story that is worth remembering today.

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Otto Rohwedder was a jeweller by trade, but he was also an inventor and a risk-taker – an enviable combo for the modern-day tech entrepreneur. Born in Iowa in 1880, the jeweller’s apprentice went on to open up three stores of his own, but his true passion lay elsewhere.

Nestled inside his workshop, he would apply his expertise in jewellery and watchmaking to inventing new machines. One in particular became an unlikely obsession. Some inventors dreamed of time travel and space rockets, but not Rohwedder.

His goal was to develop a machine that could slice bread. It may have lacked the excitement and appeal of traveling through space or time, but he was utterly convinced by his idea, and was prepared to sell his jewellery stores to fund it.

Rising from the ashes

But it was an uphill struggle. First came an inventor’s worst nightmare: in 1917 a fire engulfed Rohwedder’s factory, sending his prototype and all the blueprints up in smoke and setting him back several years in bringing his slicer to market. But he was in it for the long game.

Undeterred by the disaster, the inventor pressed on, generating new funding, redesigning his machine and gathering the opinions of tens of thousands of people as to the perfect thickness of a slice of bread.

After years of graft, in 1927, Rohwedder finally designed a machine that not only sliced the bread but wrapped it too, and the following year the first sliced loaf emerged from a bakery in Chillicothe, Missouri. Only the slicer wasn’t an instant hit.

The baking industry voiced concerns about the new-fangled idea and pre-sliced bread proved a tough sell with many consumers. Pre-sliced loaves went stale faster than whole loaves, and some shoppers felt they were “sloppy looking”.

Not deterred

Still, like many of the inventors that came before and have come since, Rohwedder slogged on, driven by a belief that what he had to offer was a gamechanger.

Eventually, instinct and hard work paid off. To make his loaves look more appealing, he had produced U-shaped pins to hold them together. By the 1930s, sliced bread had become a kitchen staple in households across America.

So impressed was The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, the paper declared the invention nothing short of “The greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped”. A line that gave rise to the slogan we know and love today.

Everyone wanted one

And so sliced bread took off. People learned to love the invention that saved them time, effort and potential injury – and the baking industry learned to love it too. With slices thinner and more uniform, people ate more of them... and more frequently.

By 1933, for the first time, more bread was sold sliced than unsliced in the US, and spin-off products and inventions were on the rise too: pop-up toasters and spreads to smother over every slice.

Decades on from Rohwedder’s invention, history is repeating itself. Pnly this time the innovation causing a storm is not the sliced loaf, it’s artificial intelligence – a class of disruptive tech that is on par with the great transformative technologies of the past such as electricity, cars, the microchip, the internet.

Sliced bread wasn’t the first invention to alter everyday life, but it illustrates two things: how fear and suspicion are our gut reactions to change. And how innovations can transform life for the better once we let them in.

So, next time you bite into a sandwich, consider this: if the modest sliced loaf has made life easier, just think what AI could do.

- Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered leadership and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at tsw@tommyweir.com.