Suitcase on Wheels

We put wheels on bags after we put a man on the moon, made the internet and started flying the Boeing 747. What took so long?

In 1970 Bernard Sadow had no luck selling his new invention into Department stores.

“I showed it to every department store in New York City and everybody said I was crazy. ‘Nobody’s going to pull a piece of luggage with wheels on it.’ People just didn’t think in those terms,” 

He was a Vice President of a Luggage company, and simply put 4 wheels on the bottom of a normal case. Macy’s finally started selling them, with a campaign called ” “the Luggage That Glides.” A patent for 2 years followed, before other makers jumped into the market.

We learn from this than innovation is inextricably linked with culture and society.  

Until the 1970’s travel was for the wealthy only. 

People who travelled didn’t carry their own bags, they had staff too. The idea they’d lift things themselves was outrageous.  
And thus the buyers were not the users and there was a huge disconnect in the market. 

(For similar reasons domestic use of electricity was slow, why would a house owner care how hard their staff found it to light lights, or cook food) 

The idea of dragging luggage on wheels was seen as less sophisticated or too utilitarian. 

But Sadow didn’t change the world. The bag was still slightly awkward to use, as as more people entered the travel market, traveling more and more often, it was a bad bag for people who wanted to travel alone or for quick trips. 

It was even later, in  1987, US pilot Robert Plath created the modern cabin bag. As a pilot for Northwest Airlines, Robert Plath had to travel very frequently so he knew what people really needed.

He made a far smaller version of Sadow’s suitcase and reoriented it to be more upright and with a longer telescopic handle. Now the bag would be easier than ever to move, with no bending over.

It’s then the bag took off. 

But in an even more useful twist to the tale, we learn than neither really invented wheeled luggage. It was 1954, when the Polish/Croatian painter Alfred Joseph Krupa first attached wheels to a bag.

Krupa was an amateur boxer and martial arts practitioner, and he also taught target shooting and fencing, and a chronic inventor.

But the timing wasn’t right, he didn’t have the right connections, he was born into a country that didn’t have a clear path to global markets at the time, and he had so many ideas, he could never just focus on one. 

There is a lot that can be learned from all of this. Take from it what you wish.

My biggest takeaway here is that the idea itself, however crucial, is only about 1% of the process needed to make it work. And that there’s a bit of luck with timing and opportunities involved, perhaps outside of our control. Then I get to thinking…how many potentially great inventions/prototypes are out there, but are victims of bad timing or placement, or the inventor being discouraged from an initial rejection?

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