The Rollaboard

The 1989 patent for Robert Plath’s Rollaboard http://www.google.com/patents/US4995487

Background:

The suitcase pictured above is from the 1989 patent for Robert Plath’s innovative wheeled-luggage design.  As is the typical suitcase we see today, this suitcase had two wheels at the bottom and an extendable handle to pull easily and comfortably.

As a pilot for Northwest Airlines, Robert Plath had to travel very frequently. He then took to his garage and crafted a convenient suitcase for himself, with wheels and a handle. After making his own working model at home, Plath took it to work and received a ton of positive attention from co-workers who wanted one for themselves.

Historic context

1. Does the source fit what might be called a need of the time? Does it make a common form of work much easier? 

In the 1960s and earlier, travelers were condemned to actually lugging around their luggage. Suitcases had only a handle to be carried by and were often too large and heavy, making travelling an annoying task.

Bernard Sadow was the first to add wheels to his luggage in the 1970s. He put his luggage on coasters and attached a strap on the front to pull it from. Sadow received the patent for “Rolling Luggage”, but it was not an immediate crowd pleaser and there were still some deficiencies to the product. Since it was meant to be pulled horizontally, the suitcase was very prone to toppling over, especially if the person was moving quickly or over uneven ground.

Robert Plath’s new take on rolling luggage offered more comfort and stability. By adding a built in, extendable handle, Plath’s design allowed people to pull the suitcase vertically, rather than horizontally, which solved the issue of instability, without having to bend down to reach the strap, solving the issue of comfort. The new design quickly became popular among Plath’s fellow airport employees, and other frequent travelers.

2. Social and cultural values revealed?  Does it have assumptions built into the science or technology?

I find it rather fascinating that such a basic invention took so long to be invented. As this article (What came first? Wheeled luggage or a man on the moon?, Brian Weisburg, https://medium.com/@betafactory/what-came-first-wheeled-luggage-or-a-man-on-the-moon-20f8b22529a3) points out,  the first man on the moon had to carry his luggage home when he got back! Maybe this goes to show where the country’s priorities were. The Cold War was a very real issue for most of the country at that point in time.  The whole country was fixed on winning the “race” against the Soviet Union, in nuclear arms, in NASA, etc.

Then again, the fact that the Rollaboard did become so popular signals how popular travel was, especially air travel once airplane tickets started to become more affordable.

3. Impact—did it disappear? enormous success? or actually damaging?

Sadow’s rolling luggage was rather rapidly outshined by Robert Plath’s Rollaboard.  Seeing the immediate attention led Plath to launch his own company, Travelpro, to dedicate time to producing and selling his Rollaboards, and he has seen huge revenues. Plath has never had to work as a pilot another day in his life and his luggages are still as popular as ever.

Although Plath sold his Travelpro shares in 1991, Rollaboard luggage sales continue and many knock-off products have appeared on the market since then. The Rollaboard design changed the way people travel. I don’t know what I would have done without a rolling suitcase these past few years.

References:

Reinventing the Suitcase by Adding the Wheel, Joe Sharkey, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/business/05road.html?_r=1

Patent US 4995487 A, http://www.google.com/patents/US4995487

http://goingglobaltv.com/wheels-up/

https://medium.com/@betafactory/what-came-first-wheeled-luggage-or-a-man-on-the-moon-20f8b22529a3

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