December 11, 2009 15:14 Age: 8 yrs

The RollAboard Suitcase and Education Reform

Category: Home, Chi Tschang
By: Chi Tschang

Consider this simple multiple-choice question: of the five individuals listed below, who had the greatest positive influence over the most lives in the past 25 years?

a.) Bill Clinton
b.) Nelson Mandela
c.) Oprah Winfrey
d.) Robert Plath
e.) Sam Walton

My contrarian answer would be (d) Robert Plath. I know. You’re thinking, "Robert who?"

Back in 1971, a serial inventor named Bernard Sadow was struggling to carry his suitcase through an airport in Puerto Rico, when a man rolled heavy machinery by on a dolly. Sadow immediately thought of putting wheels on the suitcase and applied for U.S. patent #3,653,474 ("rolling luggage") the following year. The new suitcase had four wheels and a strap that you would use to pull it along.

Sadow then took this new contraption to New York City, where he tried to get every major department store to sell his rolling luggage. All of them--Macy's, Gimbel's, Sak's--rejected him. They said, "People won't buy it. Anyway, if you go to any train station, there are red caps or porters and they'll carry your suitcase for you."

When I was a child growing up in the late 1970s, my parents had a light blue Samsonite suitcase. Imagine the suitcase to the top left, only baby blue. Yes, it rolled. However, since the base was too wobbly, it frequently toppled over at the most inopportune times (like running through airports).

Fast forward two decades to 1991. Frustrated by the existing models, a Northwest Airlines pilot named Robert Plath tinkered in his garage and created a new wheeled suitcase. This time though, you didn't pull it lengthwise; you pulled it widthwise. Instead of a shaky strap, there was a rigid, telescoping handle called the "RollAboard." The design was meticulous: it was just narrow enough to fit down the airplane aisle perfectly. The wheels initially presented a problem because their bulge would prevent overhead compartments from closing. So Plath created partially recessed wheels. Problem solved.

Now, RollAboard suitcases (like the one I own on the bottom left) have changed the way millions of us travel. Now, more than 85 percent of travelers use a wheeled suitcase. American Airlines has spent $50 million just to enlarge overhead bins to accommodate the roller bags. It's even altered the design of airports; now, security checkpoints have been standardized to fit the 22-inch-wide bags. Even school kids have gotten in on the action as many backpacks now resemble a RollAboard. And finally, to bring this story full circle, it's putting skycaps and porters out of business. That is, we just don’t need help with our luggage any more. Somewhere, Bernard Sadow is smiling about that.

The short history of the RollAboard is both a cautionary tale and a story of hope. On one hand, it illustrates how our assumptions constrain our thinking. In other words, we often tend to think of doing things in a certain, conventional way: "Luggage means 'to lug' so of course suitcases have to be uncomfortable!" or "Why would anyone want to carry their own suitcase? That's what porters are for!"

At Achievement First, we are also challenging broken assumptions of a different kind: kids living in low-income communities can't learn at high levels; public education must be synonymous with poor quality; joy and rigor cannot co-exist across a school's four walls.

On the other hand, the story of the RollAboard is fundamentally a hopeful one. Once-bizarre ideas--like rolling luggage and high-quality urban public schools--can become the norm. Just as Robert Plath was able to improve millions of lives, our mission at Achievement First is to create a model for powerful public education that may someday serve millions of kids across America. What if over 85 percent of our public schools were high-performing? What if more than 85 percent of our classrooms were both rigorous and joyful? We invite you to join us for this important journey.