How Today’s Wheeled Suitcase Was Invented

We toss our carry-on luggage into the storage space above our seats when boarding an aircraft without ever thinking about its strategic design that makes travel as easy as stow, retrieve, repeat. Thanks to innovators like Robert Plath, founder of The Original Rollaboard® luggage and former Travelpro CEO, we don’t have to think twice about our bags, which today are more like travel companions rather than bulky nuisances.

Thirty years ago, Plath retired from his job as a Northwest Airlines pilot to roll up his sleeves and transform the rolling luggage we tend to take for granted today. Here’s how Plath revolutionized luggage with a few simple tweaks that changed the travel industry forever.

When Did Luggage Get Wheels?

The first rolling suitcase was invented  50 years ago by Bernard D. Sadow, the former vice president of a Massachusetts luggage company. Sadow’s design allowed travelers to no longer have to carry a heavy suitcase by the handle. Rather, the Rolling Luggage — as Sadow patented it in 1972 — sat on top of wheels and could be pulled around the airport by a strap.

Rolling Luggage started gaining popularity when Macy’s bought inventory and ran a marketing campaign that called his invention “the luggage that glides.” But, the design had its flaws, often tipping over or bumping the carrier’s ankles. While these annoyances may not have bothered the occasional traveler, it peeved airline crews who were tired of lugging their clumsy carry-on bags through the airport. Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines 747 pilot, was especially unamused and began toying around with the design. He ended up innovating the Rollaboard®.

What Is A Rollaboard Suitcase?

Nearly 20 years after Sadow prototyped the first rolling luggage, Robert Plath had the bright idea in 1987 to turn his suitcase upright in a vertical position, install two wheels at the base, and add a retractable handle to the top. His design immediately took off with his fellow flight crew, and a few years later, Plath retired from the airline to found the company Travelpro, which made the Rollaboard® available to mainstream travelers.

A Summation of Wheeled Suitcase History:

  • In 1970, Bernard D. Sadow innovated a traditional suitcase on wheels attached to a long strap. 
  • In 1972, Sadow patented his invention as the Rolling Luggage.
  • In 1987, Robert Plath updated Sadow’s design by placing the suitcase vertically, attaching two wheels and building a retractable handle.
  • In 1989, demand for Plath's trademarked Rollaboard® became so high he moved operations from his garage to a warehouse.
  • In 1991, Plath retired from the airline to pursue Travelpro, the parent company of his Rollaboard® product, full-time.

Today’s Rolling Suitcase

The Rollaboard® had a butterfly effect in the 1990s, leading not only to an uptick in luggage demand that revived the suitcase industry but also to a total reconfiguration of overhead storage bins in order to accommodate the new design. While four-wheeled spinner luggage andduffle bags have also gained popularity over recent years, the two-wheeledRollaboard® luggage that Plath created more than 30 years ago is still favored by many travelers today.

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