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A Brief History of Wheeled Suitcases

Many things in life take a long time to evolve and find their trajectories and purpose. Such is the case with wheels.

The first wheel was thought to have been invented between 4000 and 3500 B.C.E. somewhere in Mesopotamia (now called Iraq). But it was used for pottery. A round, flat object was placed on its side. The pottery maker would spin the wheel on its axle to shape the clay into objects like pots. The Sumerians (those who live in southern Mesopotamia) realized they could use these wheels for something else, namely transportation. The wheel as we know it began its path, but it would take some millennia later for it to be installed on a suitcase.

Modern pottery maker in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai, India. Photo by Shayne Inc Photography/Unsplash.

In 1972, an American named Bernard Sadow patented the rolling luggage. Sadow later started a luggage company that became known as Briggs & Riley Travelware. But the early wheeled suitcases were wobbly and unstable and two years later, in 1974, Sadow's competitors grouped together and broke the patent. Thus the market for wheeled luggage was opened.

In the late 1980s, Robert Plath, an airline pilot, created the two-wheeled case with retractable handles and called it the Rollaboard. This became the basis of his luggage company, TravelPro.

However, in 1969, there was already a US patent application of a rolling suitcase by one Arthur J. Browning. Unfortunately, the application wasn't approved for whatever reason.

Alfred Krupa and his wheeled luggage (circa 1954).
Alfred Krupa and his wheeled luggage (circa 1954).

And yet, before Browning, Sadow, or Plath, there was a Croatian inventor. His name was Alfred Krupa, and evidence suggested he invented the wheeled suitcase around 1954.

Krupa had quite a life. He graduated from Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, Poland in 1937, just before World War II started.

In 1943, he left Poland to flee the Nazi Germany and moved to Yugoslavia, where he became one of the core artists of the Art of Croatian Antifascist Movement. With the Yugoslavian partisans, Krupa helped rescue Randolph Churchill, the son of British PM Winson Churchill, as well as members of the US 449th Bomb Group who were forced to land in Croatia.

Unfortunately, Krupa couldn't save his sister, Hildegard Marie, who died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Krupa

After the war, Krupa began exhibiting his paintings. He taught art at the Karlovac High School from 1946 until he retired in 1971. He was also an amateur boxer and martial arts practitioner and taught target shooting and fencing.

Yet of all his accomplishments, his inventions were the ones that really made him stand out.

Apart from the wheeled suitcase, Krupa also invented inflatable boxing gloves, glass-bottomed boats, and water skis. He did try to contact authorities in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and even the British Embassy, to get patents for his inventions, but he eventually gave up after getting no response.

Alfred Krupa died in 1989, and was given awards post-humously, including awarded the Medal for Bravery by Yugoslavia president, Josip Broz Tito.

We've come a long way since the Mesopotamians first invented the wheels and put them to good use. From two-wheeled luggage that can be rolled at an angle to suitcases with four wheels and eight wheels for a smooth gliding experience, wheeled luggage has become ubiquitous and synonymous with travel because of its convenience.


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