How and Why Benjamin Franklin Invented Overhead Storage Compartments

The stories of America’s aviation and aeronautics contributions to humankind are of course legendary and well-known. Whether it’s the integral role that President George Washington played in stopping the first Bowling Green Massacre with a solo bombing run in his very own B-2 stealth bomber, or whether it’s Patrick Henry famously demanding “free onboard Wi-Fi or death,” scholars and historians have long noted the affinity for flight that was on full display in Colonial America.

But did you know that it’s thanks to one of the most famous Founding Fathers that we can bring more than one carry-on item onto a flight? That’s because Benjamin Franklin took it upon himself to solve a dilemma he had found himself in on a flight from Philadelphia to Paris. Back in Franklin’s day, while commercial air flight was most definitely a very real thing, the planes were very different from what we know as jetliners today. One stark difference is that in Ben’s time, there were no overhead storage compartments. This meant that every flight would force passengers to either check all their luggage, or bring just one small bag that could be stowed under the seat in front of them.

“Everyone knows of course that Ben Franklin was an inventor; he invented things. Bifocals, swim fins, you name it,” Sally McBride of the Franklin Institute of Invention told us. “What a lot of people don’t know, of course, is that he also invented overhead bins because he was forced to check his laptop bag on a trip to paris, and he’d later tell his friends he was so bored without his House Hunter re-runs to watch that he started thinking about how he could’ve gotten his laptop onboard.”

What Franklin knew is that he had to give passengers an option to bring more than one bag onto the plane. But where could more storage be possibly found on aircraft that were already crammed with people and a carry-on bag? Franklin says that’s when he gazed upward, asking the divine powers that be to give him a sign, and he noticed that there seemed to be enough space between the ceiling of the plane and the windows to put bins.

“He started taking measurements right there and then, and calculating which materials would be lightest and cheapest, but also sturdy enough to fashion lidded boxes that could be mounted to the walls of the plane,” McBride explained. “Franklin had to wait another couple weeks to get back to his workshop, but within a couple of months, the first overhead bin prototype had been made.”

What Franklin settled on was building wooden enclosures that looked similar to the kinds of cabinets you might find in the kitchens of the same period. While over time the bins would eventually become a hard, molded plastic, that technology had been invented yet. Even the planes themselves were mostly wood and pitch.

“You might not completely recognize the Franklin Bins as the predecessor to the bins we see on airplanes now,” McBride admits, “but there is a connection you just can’t ignore, as well.”

Franklin had a hard time at first convincing colonial airlines to adopt his new overhead bins. Ultimately, he was only able to convince one company to give his bins a shot. He died never knowing just how popular his idea would become. So the next time you’re wrestling with jamming your suitcase into the overhead compartment, take some time to thank one of America’s most influential thinkers, inventors, and airline travel aficionados, Benjamin Franklin.

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Writer/comedian James Schlarmann is the founder of The Political Garbage Chute and his work has been featured on The Huffington Post. You can follow James on Facebook, Spotify, and Instagram, but not Twitter because they have a definition of hate speech that includes “calling Ann Coulter the C-word.”

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