The 21st century has a somewhat inconsistent attitude to its inventors. Come up with an idea for an online social network of no practical purpose, and every kid who can spell OMG will know your name while Hollywood will make a film of your life. Create a product that transforms the life of anyone who ever had to shlep anything from A to B, on the other hand, and you run the risk of being as unheralded as Bernard Sadow. Bernard who? Exactly.

It was 1970 and Sadow, a luggage manufacturer from Westchester County, New York, was wrestling with two suitcases at Puerto Rico airport when a man sped past him pushing a large piece of machinery on a wheeled platform. "I said to my wife, 'That's what we need! Wheels on luggage,'" Sadow, now 85, recalls. Once home, he attached four wheels to the base of a suitcase and a fabric strap to the top. His invention made travellers look as though they were walking square, inanimate dogs.

It wasn't until 1988 that the design for the suitcase on wheels as we now know it was perfected by an airline pilot called Robert Plath. And now you can't move without noticing his "rollerboard", as it has become known in the travel industry.

We say noticing, what we actually mean is getting stuck behind them on escalators and travelators, getting run over by them in airports and train stations, and waiting for days while someone tries to retract or withdraw the handle of one at a check-in queue.

There are those models designed for kids to sit on. There are those designed to take exactly the legal amount of space in the overhead locker. And there are those designed to look so alike that reclaiming your own from the baggage carousel becomes a game of Russian roulette.

They tip, wobble, won't stand up and are impossible to pull in a straight line. But you cannot uninvent the wheeled suitcase. Though as anyone who's ever tried to pull one through a muddy festival will know, there has always been an alternative: and what – beyond snobbery – did we have against the backpack in the first place?