Surely I needn’t tell you what a vacuum cleaner is. (And don’t call you Shirley.) But do you know the history of this nigh essential household device? If not, read on. If so, you want a job*? We’re always looking for new writers.
From Hand Cranks to Internal Combustion: The Early Years
The earliest known example of what could be considered a modern vacuum cleaner was invented by Daniel “Big Dan” Hess of West Union, Iowa, in 1860. Hess’s device gathered dust using a rotating brush and a hand-pump bellows that generated suction.
The first commercial vacuum cleaner was the Whirlwind, developed by Ives W. “Big Ives” McGaffey in Chicago, Illinois, in 1868. Though clunky and difficult to operate—it relied on a belt-driven, hand-cranked fan to create suction—it sold fairly well. Melville “Big Mel” Bissell of Grand Rapids, Michigan, used a similar design for his first commercial vacuum cleaner. (Today, Bissell is one of America’s largest vacuum cleaner manufacturers.)
In 1898, Missourian John “Big John” Thurman patented his gas-powered “pneumatic carpet renovator”, which is about as 1890sy a name for a device as you’ll ever see. He offer door-to-door carpet cleaning services from a horse-drawn cart for $4 per visit. Though he submitted a patent for his device as a vacuum cleaner, Thurman’s invention was not truly a vacuum cleaner, as it blew, rather than sucked, dirt into its receptacle. Years later, a patent judge pointed this out, ruling that Thurman “does not appear to have attempted to design a vacuum cleaner, or to have understood the process of vacuum cleaning.”
The 1st Time “This Thing Sucks” was A Good Review: The 20th Century
The first electrically-powered vacuum cleaner was invented by British engineer Hubert Cecil “Big Bert” Booth in 1901. Booth’s inspiration came from a demonstration of a machine similar to Thurman’s, which blew dirt around rather than sucking it up. Following the demonstration, he concluded that “if the system could be reversed […] the real solution of the hygienic removal of dust would be obtained.” Booth’s extremely bulky invention—it, too, had to be transported via horsecart—was the first to be marketed using the term “vacuum cleaner”. Like Hubert, Booth offered vacuum cleaning services door-to-door, and his company was called upon to clean the carpets in Westminster Abbey before King Edward VII’s coronation in 1901.
Booth received two patents for his vacuum cleaner in 1901. David T. “Big Dave” Kenney, an American inventor, received nine vacuum cleaner patents of his own between 1903 and 1913, and established the Vacuum Cleaner Manufacturers’ Association in 1919; membership was limited to licensees using his patented devices. Around this same time, German inventor Wilhelm “Big Willie” Beth adapted similar technology to a larger scale, developing baghouse systems that removed dust and particulates generated in industrial processes.
The first portable and commercially-viable vacuum cleaner was invented by Walter “Big Walt” Griffiths of Birmingham, England. The manually-powered device used a bellows-like contraption to generate suction, and was cleverly designed to allow for one-handed operation.
The first portable electric vacuum cleaner was invented by James Murray “Big Game James” Spangler in 1907, and patented as the “Electric Suction Sweeper” in 1908. Spangler’s key innovation was a spinning brush that loosened dirt and debris from carpet fibers, making it easier to gather through the suction tube. Spangler lacked the necessary funds to produce his design on his own, and so sold his patent to William Henry “Big Bill Hank” Hoover. The resulting device was the Hoover Model O.
Luxury No More: Vacuum Cleaners After WWII
Because of their high price tags (a Model O retailed for $60), vacuum cleaners were considered luxury items for many years. Like many things, however, they became common amongst the American middle class following World War II. As wall-to-wall carpeting also became more common during the post-War boom, replacing hardwood or tiled floors, vacuum cleaner sales grew as well.
The later decades of the 20th century saw numerous innovations in vacuum cleaner technology, from rechargeable, handheld vacuum cleaners like the Dust Buster to autonomous vacuum cleaners like the Roomba. We have robots vacuums, but still no cure for cancer. What a time to be alive!
* Not really a job, as it doesn’t pay. But volunteering is fun, no?