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7 Brilliant Inventions That Changed How We Travel

Discover the surprising histories behind the every day objects that transformed travel forever.

In 1972 Bernard D. Sadow registered a patent for rolling luggage, revolutionizing travel.
Video by birdigol, Getty Images

Many staples of modern journeys have storied histories. Whether commissioned from the U.S. Department of Defense or Steve Jobs’s brain trust, they’ve enabled the mass migration of people around the globe, democratizing travel and making it faster. Here are seven to appreciate.

BACKPACK

Despite centuries of military rucksacks (“ruck” means back in German and “sack” means bag), the modern backpack didn’t appear until 1938. Gerry Cunningham, a rock climber in Boulder, Colorado, introduced a model that replaced canvas with nylon and incorporated zippers. “The backpack allows the user to travel hands-free, comfortable, to carry a ton and access a lot—the best way to travel for sure,” said Jamie Cormack, co-founder of the hip Herschel Supply Company. “In the 60s and 70s climbing became more progressive—the way people climbed, the way they used gear, safety harnesses, whether it was military or mountaineering, to be lighter with better efficiency.” The leather diamond-shaped lash tab on their Heritage packs references the era, when climbers looped a piece of webbing through the two slits to hold various gear, including ice picks.

HOTEL KEY CARD

The origin of the electronic hotel key card is a story of something good coming out of something bad. In 1974, Tor Sørnes, a Norwegian inventor who worked at a lock and ice skate factory called Ving, heard an account of a woman being attacked in her hotel room by an intruder. At the time, traditional hotel keys were metal, and often contained the hotel’s name, address, and room number. Striving for a more secure mechanism, Sørnes made the first programmable keycard: VingCard. “Such locks are of special interest for hotels, where it is not uncommon that the guests forget to leave the key upon departure or that the key is lost in some other way,” Sørnes wrote in his 1978 U.S. patent filing. “For security reasons, it will be desirable to change the combination of the lock to a new key.” Other variations of reusable keys had been developed, but VingCard fixed flaws with magnetization and remains an industry standard. The cards were first issued outside of Norway in 1978 at the Peachtree Plaza Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, which, at the time, was the tallest hotel in the world.

GPS: THE GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM

Prior to GPS, different branches of the U.S. military relied on their own disparate ways to navigate through air, water, and land. Civilians made do with paper maps and compasses for driving, hiking, and walking. Then, over Labor Day weekend in 1973, a U.S. military directive changed movement for the entire planet. Officials from the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Department of Transportation hunkered in a room at the Pentagon, instructed to stay and duke it out until they came up with a universal navigation system. They emerged with the architecture of GPS, says Paul Ceruzzi, Smithsonian Institution curator and co-author of Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting From Here to There. Four decades later, the 24-satellite system is still operated by the U.S. Air Force. “Your taxes pay for it. Anybody can use it anywhere in the world for free. They thought about trying to charge a fee but they couldn’t figure out how to do that.” That’s right, the U.S. owns the GPS currently servicing the entire planet, but Europe, China, and Russia are attempting to produce their own systems, which may come with a user fee.

THE IPAD

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Prior to the advent of the iPad, airplanes carried an extensive "aircraft library" of technical manuals.


Aside from its power to mesmerize restless passengers, the iPad revolutionized flight by replacing the “aircraft library,” a voluminous set of technical manuals formerly stowed in cockpits. “I don’t think passengers would believe how much paper we used to carry around the world,” says Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airways senior first officer and author of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. This included separate books devoted to takeoffs and landings, weight distribution, and paperwork for every imaginable circumstance, including an in-flight birth. “For a longhaul airplane like the 747, we need charts for pretty much all the airspace and all the major airports on the planet.”

Now the information has migrated to the iPad, aka the Portable Electronic Flight Bag. “They can be updated at the press of a button instead of laboriously pulling the manuals off hundreds of aircrafts in order to swap individual pages in and out,” he added. “Then there’s the fuel savings. Every pound that can be taken off an airplane results in significant fuel savings every time that plane gets airborne.”

ATM: AUTOMATED TELLER MACHINE

Before the advent of 24-7 cash dispensing machines, travel was arguably bulkier, more dangerous, and less spontaneous. Even domestically, tourists exchanged cash for traveler’s checks, which were considered safer because they were traceable by number. Foreign trips involved changing cash into foreign currency before even hailing a taxi and then back into local currency, paying fees with every transaction. The ATM, which evolved from three independent devices—two in the United Kingdom and one in Sweden—eventually changed all of that. “It was bankers approaching engineers for a solution rather than the ingenuity of a single man,” says Bangor University professor Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo, who co-authored Cash Box: The Invention and Globalization of the ATM. The machines were “a way to expand banking services to the working class while avoiding congestion at branches.” Between consumer distrust and kinks with the machinery, integrations took a decade of trial and error. After credit card sizes were standardized in the mid-1970s, plastic ATM cards became the norm.

SUITCASE

The suitcase had already revolutionized travel by the time U.S. Patent No. 3,653,474 was filed. Prior to its arrival, travel was reserved for the wealthy, who had servants to lift heavy trunks. Then, in 1972, Bernard D. Sadow registered his idea, “Rolling Luggage.” He proposed that “luggage made in accordance with this invention has been found to be readily and easily movable. The luggage actually glides. Further, substantially any person, regardless of size, strength or age can easily pull the luggage along without effort or strain.” It took years for the idea to take off, however, with marketers assuming men wouldn’t buy in. Sadow, who died in 2011, told the New York Times: “It was a very macho thing.”

ELECTRICAL CONVERTERS

Manufacturers of vacuum cleaners and washing machines didn’t account for international markets when developing their products, allowing for different standards of electricity and sockets around the world. Thankfully, the rise of converters and adapters has reduced the chance of blowing out a hairdryer in a foreign bathroom or having to buy new appliances in every country. Gabriela Ehrlich of the Swiss-based International Electrotechnical Commission is optimistic about an ever more streamlined future. The global growth in small devices may lead to a LVDC (Low Voltage Direct Current) standard. “This would mean that we might actually not need certain types of converters anymore—the little black ‘boxes’ that are now found between the plug and your laptop,” she explains. In the meantime, those dual voltage boxes have lightened the suitcase of many a business traveler!


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