Who Actually Invented the Wheeled Suitcase?

While the patent for the wheeled suitcase was awarded to an American in 1972, in 1954, a Yugoslavian artist named Alfred Krupa was rolling his suitcase.
Marcia Wendorf
The first wheeled suitcase (1954), The inventor Alfred Joseph Krupa (1945)1, 2

Walk through any airport in the world and you're likely to see people pushing all manner of wheeled suitcases, but do you know who invented the suitcase on wheels? The answer might surprise you.

The patent for the wheeled suitcase, patent No. 3,653,474 for "Rolling Luggage" was granted in 1972 to Bernard Sadow, who was the owner of the company U.S. Luggage, which is now part of Briggs & Riley Travelware.

Sadow attached four casters to a suitcase and added a flexible strap. His first retail client for the new invention was Macy's Department Stores. However, around 1954, the Polish/Croatian painter Alfred Joseph Krupa invented a wheeled suitcase, as shown in the picture below.

Alfred Krupa and wheeled suitcase circa 1954
Alfred Krupa and his wheeled suitcase circa 1954, Source: Public Domain

Who was Alfred Krupa?

Krupa had a colorful and difficult life. Born in Mikolow, Poland in 1915, he lost both his parents at an early age and was raised along with his two brothers and a sister by his grandmother.

Following high school, Krupa traveled to Krakow, Poland, where he studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. Krupa graduated in 1937, just before the onset of World War II.

In 1943, Krupa escaped occupied Poland to Yugoslavia, where he became one of the core artists of the Art of Croatian Antifascist Movement. With the Yugoslavian partisans, Krupa helped rescue British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's son Randolph and members of the U.S. 449th Bomb Group who were forced to land in Croatia.

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

Following the war, Krupa began exhibiting his paintings, which included portraits and landscapes in watercolor, oil, charcoal, chalk, and pencil. In 1946, Krupa started teaching art at the Karlovac High School where he remained until his retirement in 1971.

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Besides painting, Krupa was an amateur boxer and martial arts practitioner, and he also taught target shooting and fencing, but it is with his inventions that Krupa really distinguished himself.

Krupa's water walking skis
Krupa's water walking skis, Source: Public Domain

In 1951, Krupa created skis for use in walking on water, and he used them to walk on Croatia's Korana River. In 1954, Krupa created the first suitcase on wheels, and in 1957, he created a glass-bottom boat that could be used to observe underwater.

Krupa's folding catamaran
Krupa's folding catamaran, Source: Public Domain

Krupa also invented a folding canvas catamaran and boxing gloves that could be inflated with compressed air.

Krupa attempted to patent these inventions by contacting authorities in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and even the British Embassy, but he eventually gave up on the idea.

Alfred Krupa died in 1989, and he was awarded among other distinctions the Medal for Bravery by Yugoslavia's leader Marshal Tito.

The evolution of the wheeled suitcase

During the 1970s, there was a surge in the number of people flying worldwide, and also more women began flying alone. As airports became bigger and bigger, the need for wheeled luggage became greater.

By 1974, Bernard Sadow's patent was broken, and his competitors started creating wheeled luggage. In 1987, Bernard Sadow's invention was supplanted by the type of wheeled suitcase that we all use today. It was invented by a Northwest Airlines pilot named Robert Plath who added two wheels and a telescoping handle to a suitcase that could then be rolled upright.

Initially, Plath sold his rolling suitcases to fellow flight crews, but as soon as airport travelers spied the new suitcases, they clamored to have them. Plath gave up flying and started the company Travelpro International, which made the wildly popular Rollaboard suitcase.

Today, the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, is a proponent of one trendy wheeled luggage brand Away, and she gifted suitcases to attendees of her baby shower in February 2019.

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