As I finish packing for my vacation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the large and small ways in which travel has changed, including the increasing number of gadgets and other conveniences taken for granted today.
Consider something as seemingly simple as the suitcase.
Historically, luggage essentially consisted of large, heavy trunks usually made out of wood, leather, and sometimes iron. Since transportation options were limited and most people didn’t own many possessions and couldn’t afford to travel anyway, cumbersome trunks that would be carried by multiple people (i.e. servants) were sufficient. However, around the turn of the 20th century, smaller, lighter-weight suitcases carried by one person—for example, immigrant Miljenko Grgich’s 1950s humble suitcase seen here—became the standard.
Although it is ubiquitous now, and seems like an obvious innovation in retrospect, it wasn’t until 1970 that anyone added wheels directly to suitcases rather than carry them by hand or put them on rolling carts. American tourist Bernard Sadow came up with the idea while he was dragging his bags through customs after a vacation in Aruba. When he returned home, he took four rolling casters from a wardrobe trunk and strapped them onto a suitcase. Sadow applied for a US patent in 1970 and received #3,653,474 two years later, after his product was already being marketed by Macy’s as “the luggage that glides.”
However, for most travelers the big breakthrough came with the “Rollaboard” suitcase invented by Northwest Airlines pilot Robert Plath in 1987. Working in his garage in Boca Raton, Florida, he put two wheels and a long, collapsible handle on his suitcase to roll it at an upright angle. He began making Rollaboards for his fellow pilots and flight attendants, and they quickly gained popularity after members of the public saw flight crews strolling along with these wheeled bags. Plath left the airline business to start his own luggage company, TravelPro.
Now we have suitcases that have four or eight wheels on the bottom so they can roll even more easily, either at an angle or vertically, and turn 360 degrees. Not to mention luggage with special, lightweight shells; built-in mechanical or digital locks; and/or tracking accessories that allow you to watch your luggage travel along with you (or possibly get misdirected to another airport). There are even novelty suitcases like ones with built-in scooters designed for adults! Maybe that will be my luggage purchase for my next trip…