We had several excellent nominees this year for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award. Each one of them has made a significant contribution to improving the human condition. Steve Henson gave us ranch dressing, Fasi Zaka ridiculed the Taliban, Ralp Teetor invented cruise control, and Mary Quant popularized the miniskirt. But this year’s winner is Debrilla M. Ratchford, the inventor of the rollerbag.
Ms. Ratchford was a flight attendant who realized that if you attached wheels and a handle to a suitcase, it would be much easier to transport baggage through airports. She obtained a patent in 1978 for this invention, but it took almost a decade before the rollerbag became standard airport equipment.
Prior to the rollerbag people had to carry their suitcases or pay attendants with carts to get their luggage from the car to the check-in counter. Dragging heavy bags to and from the car and around airports was a pain. And having to wait for (or lose) checked bags was as much of a pain. The rollerbag allows us to zip through airports and avoid checking bags.
This invention didn’t just ease our aching backs and save us time, it facilitates commerce. Making it easier to travel, all things equal, means that there will be more travel. More travel means more business transactions, which adds to our wealth. Debrilla M. Ratchford didn’t just invent a handy device and make some money for herself. She also benefited others by reducing the hassle of carrying around luggage and contributing to economic growth. That makes someone a great humanitarian.
A central purpose of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award is to highlight the fact that a humanitarian can be someone who benefits him or herself while also benefiting others. There is no necessary tension between self-gain and improving the human condition. On the contrary, when people are monetarily rewarded for their efforts, they are more likely to do things that benefit humanity. The entrepreneur and inventor isn’t a necessary evil, he or she has a morally positive role in society.
This is what Al Copeland did, which is why this award is named in his honor. As I wrote:
“Al Copeland may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards. Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997. And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu. Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists. From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs… or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.
Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone. By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian. But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken.”
I decided against Steve Henson because I didn’t want to give the impression that only gastronomic innovation improves the human condition (although cool ranch Dorritos are pretty awesome). I decided against Fasi Zaka because he has not yet achieved the improvement in the human condition he is seeking — making the Muslim extremists seem uncool in the Muslim world. We wouldn’t want to give an award just for the hope of future accomplishment. I decided against Ralph Teetor because I personally almost never use cruise control, so the improvement in the human condition seems less impressive to me. And while Mary Quant was a close second, I decided against selecting her because, like my concerns with making this award too gastronomic, I didn’t want to suggest that improving the human condition was primarily sensual (although Quant also added to freedom — particularly the freedom to run for a bus more easily).
Congratulations to Debrilla M. Ratchford and Happy Halloween!