The global engineer

E&T invites readers to take up the Safe Seat Challenge, with a little inspiration from Tony Benn.

Are you sitting comfortably? If you're at an airport waiting for a flight, possibly not. You could be sitting on the floor. It was this awkward situation that led veteran politician and former Minister of Technology Tony Benn to develop the Seatcase, a suitcase that's also a seat. Now he always takes his prototype away with him. "I spend so much time travelling, I have road-tested it for years. I don't think I could do without it," he told me.

There are two models. The smaller case - called the Seatpack - can be carried as a backpack but also has wheels and a stool attached to the extending handle. Benn likes to use this model when he's out and about; if the Underground's a bit crowded, he unfolds his rucksack and sits on it.

The larger version - the Seatcase - is based on a conventional rolling suitcase. "I bought a canvas shopping trolley with a seat, removed the canvas bag and attached the suitcase to the frame," explains Benn.

Benn, who as a Minister in the 1960s oversaw the development of Concorde, has always been a fan of new developments. "If I were a young entrepreneur, I would patent the travelling seats idea myself, set up a small business to manufacture them and advertise them as 'Tony Benn's Safe Seats'," he says. But Benn realises his own simple prototype could be improved upon. "If an engineer made it, it would be better, cheaper, lighter. They'd sell like hot cakes. I would be a guaranteed customer," he says. If any of you are ready to take up the Safe Seat challenge, do get in touch with me at the address below, and I'll forward your message to Benn.

Of course, Benn isn't the first person to think a piece of baggage is a good place to rest a bottom. Bristol-based designer Rob Law witnessed how navigating airports with young children and luggage tested even the most tolerant parent. So he invented the Trunki - "the world's only ride-on suitcase for globetrotting toddlers". The suitcases can be self-propelled by a child riding them, or towed by a parent during tired patches.

But Law's story does not bode well for Benn. For years, Law was refused funding by just about everyone, including the team at BBC's 'Dragon's Den'. Eventually, the Prince's Trust gave him a meagre £4,500 grant and he set about manufacturing the suitcase himself. Now, just two years after launch, it's a market leader with over 150,000 sold worldwide. I only wish they came in grown-up size...

Light as a feather

Personal observation and experience is often the spur to the very best inventions. When entrepreneur Clive Hemsley's elderly mother collapsed at an airport while heaving her heavy luggage, he knew there must be another way. So he set about making a suitcase that wouldn't make us puff and pant. Five years later, he came up with Live Luggage - a power-assisted suitcase driven by just ten rechargeable AA batteries, fitted inside the base.

Even the heaviest load can be pulled along by wrapping a single finger around the extendable handle. I tried it out myself, filling a suitcase with bags of rabbit feed and dragging it up a hill as if it only contained underwear. "It's like walking a well-behaved dog," says Hemsley. "It means a six-year-old or an 86-year-old can go almost anywhere with a fully-loaded case."

Live Luggage uses an intelligent torque control system, which only powers the pancake wheels when the handle reaches an angle of less than 35 degrees, indicating that the carrier is struggling. It cuts out at less than 15 degrees, so it won't run away from you if dropped. Fully charged, it can keep going for a mile and a half, even if you can't. When you check it in, you just have to turn off the power assistance from a switch on the handle.

Hemsley also re-made the traditional extending handle by adding a triangular wishbone, like a wheelbarrow. It even has a built-in umbrella. But, sadly, there is nowhere to sit down.

Other luggage manufacturers are interested in increasing space rather than decreasing weight. Briggs and Riley, an American luggage brand recently launched in the UK, have developed a suitcase which expands with one touch, popping up like sprung mattress to carry all your souvenirs. There's also an added feature on their carry-on that every such case should have - a security pocket on the outside, so you can safely store your passport and boarding card for those constant checks.

Perhaps an even faster way through security might be to use one of Japanese designer Hideo Wakamatsu's cases. He uses the latest designer polymers to make stylish luggage that's completely see-through, making checks run more smoothly.

At least, when it comes to luggage, there isn't a worldwide rush to make it bigger. Since my last column, yet more giant vessels are being built at the same Finnish yard that made the world's biggest passenger vessel, Independence of the Seas.

P&O Ferries has just commissioned the two largest ferries ever to be constructed for its Dover-Calais service, replacing the Pride of Dover and the Pride of Calais. The 49,000 gross tonne ships will carry 180 freight and 195 tourist vehicles, doubling the capacity of the ships they're replacing. They will also transport up to 2,000 passengers across the English Channel.

I just hope they'll all get somewhere to sit down.

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