This Week in Travel History: Suitcase Innovation and Adding Hawaiʻi to the Map

Each week we’re taking a look at profound moments within amazing trips taken by interesting people. See what happened this week in travel history. 

Watch episode 4 of This Week in History

Mapping Out the Hawaiian Islands

Week of February 22-28

It was 242 years ago this week that a very small but strategic landmass was finally added to world maps. Before Captain James Cook’s third voyage around the globe there was a huge void on maps in the central Pacific Ocean where the eight major Hawaiian Islands sit.

Cook’s mission was to find a Northwest Passage, a potential short cut from England to the Spice Islands. No passage was found but Cook mapped more Earth than any human before him and in fact didn’t leave all that much for those after him. World maps were finally able to add the east coast of Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Hawaiʻi.

Cook, of course, didn’t discover Hawaiʻi. It was settled by Polynesians a millennia before he arrived, but as local historian Bryant Neal points out: “He was the first tourist, and the first snowbird. “He arrived on Kauai in January of 1778, then went north for spring, summer and fall, returning when it got cold later in the year.”

Courtesy of Story of Hawaii Museum.
Courtesy of Story of Hawaii Museum.

Cook only stepped foot on two islands – Kauai and the Owyhee (the Big Island) – but spent a lot of time tacking in and out around all eight major islands so his crew could accurately create maps and navigational charts. “It’s important to note, Cook didn’t claim or annex any land, didn’t put a flag anywhere, and in fact, named each individual island the way he heard the natives call them (Hawaiians had no written language at the time),” Bryant added.

Cook did ceremoniously name Hawaiʻi the Sandwich Islands, as the Earl of Sandwich was the fourth Lord of the British Admiralty, the sponsor of the expedition. Even today, the accuracy of that first map of Hawaii astonishes historians and cartographers while the chart showing Cook’s entire three voyages between 1768-79 are considered benchmark maps.

Edit: This week’s guest Bryant Neal described the the 1570 Abraham Ortelius world map as the first printed map of the world. He meant to say it was the first printed map of the world published in an atlas.

How Suitcases Got Their Wheels

February 22

I’m thankful the Sumerians invented the wheel and that two-plus millennia later Bernard Sadow had the wherewithal to add the wheel to suitcases, but the person I thank every time I go on a trip is Robert Plath. It was during This Week in Travel History in 1991 that the former Northwest Airlines 747 pilot received patent no. 4995487 for his Wheeled Suitcase and Luggage Support, the invention that allows our bags to virtually glide beside us.

It seems pretty crazy that man landed on the moon before man or woman had wheels on suitcases, as it took until 1972 until Sadow got his patent. But porters and bell hops often took care of traveler’s luggage and for men, there was a macho resistance of it all, so it made some sense that it took so long. Plath wanted something better than the four-wheeled models on the market so he tinkered, and he toyed, and ultimately he created the two-wheeled version with the telescoping handle almost all of us know and use today.

Plath called his creation the Rollaboard and began selling them to fellow pilots and flight crews. The public caught on and soon enough, he didn’t need to fly planes anymore. Plath founded Travelpro, retired as a pilot and became the guy everyone thanks but no one knows. The Wright Brothers got us in the air, Boeing and Airbus keep us up there, but it was a guy in a garage in Boca Raton Florida that truly made our flying experience better.


Episode 1: Midwinter Motorcycle from Alaska to Argentina

John Binkley with his motorcycle on his journey from Alaska to Argentina.
John Binkley with his motorcycle on his journey from Alaska to Argentina. Photo credit: John Binkley.

Episode 2: Birth of a Harley-Davidson Founder

Photo courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Museum.

Episode 3: Scuba Diving Around the World

Komodo island, Indonesia.
Komodo island, Indonesia. Photo credit: Gabby Panebianco and Luke Jannicke.