Luggage, casters, and disruption

When did suitcases start having casters? Surprising as it may seem, suitcases have not always had wheels. The patent number 3.653.474 was required in the United States in 1970 and granted two years later. The idea to fit suitcases with casters came so late that became a classic case in the history of disruptive innovations in products.

The father of the idea was Bernard D. Sadow, an American from Massachusetts, who was already an executive at a luggage manufacturing company at the time of his breakthrough insight. In the occasion, he was coming back from a vacation trip with his family and their luggage when he saw an employee of the airport crossing right in front of him carrying effortlessly an enormous machine on a wheeled skid. It is said that he turned to his wife and declared: “Wheels – this is what suitcases lack.”

Sadow was a born inventor – he had over twenty registered patents in 2001 when he died at 85. As soon as he went back to work he made the first prototype of the suitcase on casters. His sample was very different from what we have today – the suitcase had four wheels and could be pulled using a loose strap, as a dog on a leash.

The novelty was not well accepted by the conservative commerce. There was concern that men would not see with good eyes something that could jeopardize their capacity to carry heavy luggage. But this is the plight of most great innovations: market and people’s resistance to a change of habits, even when the advantages are clear.

To break these barriers it was necessary to get some help from marketing – a promotion at Macy’s in New York presented the “sliding suitcases” to the consumers. Fifteen years later, another innovation would consolidate the new concept. In 1987, Robert Plath, a pilot at Northwest Airlines, used two casters in his suitcase, instead of four as in Sadow’s, and fitted a long telescopic handle to it.

In spite of having been invented so late, these new suitcases got fully adapted to a world where air travel is popular, airports are bigger, women travel alone more frequently and men do not feel threatened by these little things, the casters.