Wheels on Suitcases


MANY thousands of years ago, there were two important inventions, the wheel and the sack. As a traveler, I can’t help wondering why it took so long to put rollers on that sack to create wheeled luggage.

“It was one of my best ideas,” Bernard D. Sadow said the other day. Mr. Sadow, who was at that time a vice president  at a Massachusetts company that made luggage and coats, is credited with inventing rolling luggage 43 years ago.

First, the background. Mr. Sadow, now 85, had his eureka moment in 1970 as he lugged two heavy suitcases through an airport while returning from a family vacation in Aruba. Waiting at customs, he said, he observed a worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid.

“I said to my wife, ‘You know, that’s what we need for luggage,’ ” Mr. Sadow recalled. When he got back to work, he took casters off a wardrobe trunk and mounted them on a big travel suitcase. “I put a strap on the front and pulled it, and it worked,” he said.

This invention, for which he holds United States patent No. 3,653,474, “Rolling Luggage,” did not take off immediately, though.

“People do not accept change well,” Mr. Sadow said, recalling the many months he spent rolling his prototype bag on sales calls to department stores in New York and elsewhere. Finally, though, Macy’s ordered some, and the market grew quickly as Macy’s ads began promoting “the Luggage That Glides.”

The patent, which Mr. Sadow applied for in 1970 and received in 1972, noted that people were dealing with luggage in a new way, as airplanes decisively replaced trains as the common mode of long-distance travel.

The patent stated, “Whereas formerly, luggage would be handled by porters and be loaded or unloaded at points convenient to the street, the large terminals of today, particularly air terminals, have increased the difficulty of baggage-handling.” It added, “Baggage-handling has become perhaps the biggest single difficulty encountered by an air passenger.”

Until Mr. Sadow’s invention, the major recent innovation in luggage toting had been small, fold-up wheeled carts that travelers strapped suitcases to and pulled behind them. By the late 1960s, travel gear shops were selling lots of these as more Americans began flying, especially internationally.

But Mr. Sadow’s suitcase was ultimately supplanted by a more popular innovation — the now ubiquitous Rollaboard and its imitators.

The Rollaboard was invented in 1987 by Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines 747 pilot and avid home workshop tinkerer, who affixed two wheels and a long handle to suitcases that rolled upright, rather than being towed flat like Mr. Sadow’s four-wheeled models.

Mr. Plath initially sold his Rollaboards to fellow flight crew members. But when travelers in airports saw flight attendants striding briskly through airports with their Rollaboards in tow, a whole new market was created. Within a few years Mr. Plath had left flying to start Travelpro International, now a major luggage company. Other luggage makers quickly imitated the Rollaboard.

“Travelpro really popularized the telescoping handle with the two wheels, after Plath got the flight attendants to start carrying them,” Richard Krulik, the chief executive of U.S. Luggage, whose subsidiary Briggs & Riley Travelware markets luggage. Mr. Sadow is the former owner of U.S. Luggage.

So why did it take so long for wheeled luggage to emerge? Mr. Sadow recalled the strong resistance he met on those early sales calls, when he was frequently told that men would not accept suitcases with wheels. “It was a very macho thing,” he said.

But it was also a time of huge change in the culture of travel, as a growing number of people flew, airports became bigger and far more women began traveling alone, especially on business trips. It had taken a long time, but common sense and the quest for convenience prevailed. The suitcase acquired wheels; travelers no longer routinely needed porters and bellhops.

So here’s a toast to the inventors, and especially to Mr. Sadow on the 43th anniversary of his rolling luggage. But let’s also give three cheers to the flight attendants — the early adopters who showed the rest of us how to carry a suitcase sensibly.

Now if only someone could find a sensible way to stow that bag on an airplane.

Source: Joe Sharkey, New York Times, 2013

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

One thought

  1. I’m not a fan of these four wheel spinner cases, they are fine on a smooth surface, but useless outside of the terminal. I have a couple of cases with just two larger wheels much better

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