19 OCT 2017: When one ponders the greatest ever influencers on the travel world, the name Bernard D. Sadow may not be among the first to spring to mind. He’s certainly not up there with the likes of, the Wright Brothers, William Boeing, or Thomas Cook. That’s a shame, as looking at the way people travel today, the late Mr. Sadow really deserves to be recognized as a a major contibutor.  

It was in 1970 that Bernie Sadow had what he modestly referred to as “one of my better ideas” - at the time he was vice president of a Massachusetts company that manufactured luggage and coats. His eureka moment came when, returning from a vacation, the Sadow family was making a connection in San Juan. Bernie had just struggled to drag two huge overweight suitcases across the busy airport when he spied a worker effortlessly rolling a heavy piece of equipment on a wheeled skid. As Mr. Sadow told the story, he said to his wife, “You know, that’s exactly what we need for luggage.”

Returning to the office, he immediately started experimenting: His first prototype featured four steel trunk coasters mounted under a suitcase with an attached dog leash so the bag could be rolled with ease. It worked! A few tweaks and refinements later he took his new product to New York to try and sell it to the major department stores - but nobody was buying. "Everybody I took it to, threw me out" Sadow said. "Pulling a piece of luggage? They thought I was crazy.” He was frequently told, “Men will never accept suitcases with wheels - It was a very macho thing” he said.

Finally, a vice president at Macy’s saw the bag and had the foresight to realize its potential. The first order was placed and a few months later a Macy's window mannequin became the first sighting of ‘someone’ pulling luggage on wheels. No dummy for sure! Macy’s ads soon began promoting, “The Luggage That Glides” and the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1972 Mr. Sadow’s invention was granted US Patent # 3,653,474 for ‘Rolling Luggage’. The patent’s copy 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 which has become perhaps the biggest single difficulty encountered by an air passenger.” Boy. If only they’d known!

It would be almost another 20 years before Mr. Sadow’s wheeled suitcase was overtaken by the now ubiquitous ‘wheelie’. In 1987 the ‘Rollaboard’, as it was first known, was invented by Captain Robert Plath: A Northwest Airlines 747 pilot and inveterate ‘tinkerer’, Plath affixed two wheels and a long telescopic handle to suitcases that rolled upright, rather than being towed on their side like Mr. Sadow’s four-wheeled, pull-strap model.

Initially Plath only sold his Rollaboards to fellow flight-crew members but as soon as airline passengers began seeing flight attendants traversing airports with their ‘wheeliemajigs’ in tow, a whole new market was instantly created. Seizing the opportunity, Captain Plath soon hung up his peaked cap and became plain Mister Plath in order to form Travelpro - now a major luggage company.

In an interesting ‘back to the future’ evolution, today’s most popular wheelies have regressed to being upright four-wheelers supplanting the Rollaboard two-wheelers that ousted the original Sadow model. Of course, if you really want to be cool, backpack wheelies are now the only way to go. You can for example acquire a ‘Samsonite Modern Utility Double Shot Rolling Backpack’ at most luggage stores.

Talking of Samsonite, the really incredible thing about the evolution of luggage is why on earth it took so long for someone to think of putting wheels on there? Clearing out my late mother’s attic a few months ago, my brother and I struggled to move a big old heavy, hard-sided, brown Samsonite suitcase that had been a staple part of our family’s vacations for as long as we could remember. It was a brute and putting wheels on there - now - just seemed such an obvious thing to do!

So very obvious, that not once in all the years of dragging that brown monster in and out of the family car did my brother or I ever have a Bernard D. Sadow-like, “Wow, I’ve just had an amazing idea!” moment.

Had we done so, I would almost certainly not be sitting here writing about it right now.

Here’s to ya Bernie!


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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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