Nature Abhors A Vacuum; SMHTS Celebrates the Vacuum Cleaner

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.

Image from a vacuum cleaner advert, ca. 1910.

Image from a vacuum cleaner advert, ca. 1910.

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?

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via / No known copyright restrictions


What is Modular Design?

“Modularity” refers to the degree to which the components of a device or system may be separated and recombined/reconfigured to create a different version of the same thing. The resulting differences may be minor or significant. The concept of modularity is used across many disciplines, from biology to construction to software design. For our purposes, we’ll be discussing modularity as it applies to the design of mechanical devices. This is called, perhaps unsurprisingly, modular design.

Modules & Skids, Skids & Modules

Modular design subdivides a system or device (we’ll just use the term “device” from here on out, for simplicity’s sake) into smaller, individual parts called modules or skids. These modules can be manufactured independently of the device as a whole, and can usually be used in other devices, as well. A modern automobile, with its thousands of different, easily replaceable parts, is a prime example of a modular device, though the design concept has been used to create everything from modular buildings to modular musical instruments to modular handrails.

Legos may be the most perfect example of modular design. They're certainly the most fun example.

Legos may be the most perfect example of modular design. They’re certainly the most fun example.

Historically, modular design has been around as long as mankind has been using things to make other things. The first complex tools (i.e., those comprised of more than one piece, rather than just, say, a sharpened stick on its own) were essentially modular, as, for example, different stone axe heads could be affixed to different wooden handles to create tools of differing lengths for different tasks.

In the modern scope, modular design offers numerous benefits. First and foremost, cost and waste are reduced—it’s cheaper to replace the alternator in your car than it is to buy a whole new car, and it’s way easier for manufacturers to reproduce a single part rather than the whole thing.

Modular design also allows for augmentation and improvement of the existing device without extensive reworking. To continue the automobile analogy, you can easily replace the standard gas pedal in your car with a sweet foot-shaped one that makes you go faster on the power of sheer awesomeness. It also allows for exclusion; that is, some components may be removed and not replaced without affecting the performance of the device as a whole. You can’t take the engine out of your car and still have it run, but you could take out the backseat and it would still work just fine, for example.

One downside of modular design is inconsistent quality. When the device in question is first manufactured, all of its modules are intended to work together and are built for that purpose. Replacement modules from other sources make not be built to the same standards or with equal quality materials.

Photo credit: Shadowman39 via / CC BY

Important People, Important Discoveries, Technology

Big Léon’s Got Connections

Chances are good that you’ve never heard of Léon Mouttet, nor his company LEMO. But chances are equally good that you’ve experienced some of his and his company’s products in action. If you’ve been to the hospital recently, or listened to music through any sort of high-end system, or been through the security checkpoint at an airport, you’ve been within spitting distance of LEMO connectors.

The short version is: LEMO makes what are widely considered to be the highest-performing connectors for electronics and fiber optic stuff, and have done so for decades.

The Long Version Is…

Léon “Big Léon” Mouttet was a Swiss electrical engineer and inventor, raised on the finest chocolates and perforated cheeses the world has to offer. Mouttet originally started his company (LEon MOuttet—clever, no?) in 1946 in Morges, Switzerland, to manufacture electrical contacts from rare metals, noble metals, and rare noble metals.

Train station in Morges, Switzerland in 2011.

Train station in Morges, Switzerland in 2011.

By 1954, Mouttet had changed his company’s focus to manufacturing electronic cable connectors, including several models based on his own patented designs. In 1957, Big Léon invented the push-pull self-latching system that was to be LEMO’s first big breakthrough. LEMO’s biggest innovation, however, was the modular connectivity that soon became a standard across every product the company made. The modular design made it possible to create a huge number of configurations of LEMO’s products, a then-unique feature that made the company a worldwide name.

In 1957, LEMO connectors were introduced to the American market. In 1972, they became available in the UK; the Japanese market followed a year later. From there, LEMO took off into the stratosphere. The stratosphere, I tell ya! Since 1987, the company has built or expanded new manufacturing plants, or acquired other companies, in Ecublens and Delemont, Switzerland, Rohnert Park, California, Munich, Germany, and Osceola, Wisconsin.

Photo credit: ktulinho via / CC BY

Technology, World-Changing Inventions

The Cleanest Rooms in History

A cleanroom—or clean room—is just that: a very, very clean room. More specifically, a cleanroom is a controlled environments in which environmental pollutants and particulate are kept at extremely low levels via air filtration and purification, amongst other means. Cleanrooms are critical to the manufacture of a large number of products, from pharmaceuticals to semiconductors.

Compared to conditions in the early days of mass manufacturing, almost any modern room is clean. True clean rooms, though, are held to a higher standard. But who first developed the cleanroom as we know it? Whence did these havens of cleanliness originate? Read on to learn more!

Big Willy Whitfield Cleans Up

There is considerable historical evidence that shows that rudimentary contamination control efforts were being made in hospital operating rooms as early as the mid-19th century CE. Building off earlier discoveries by Louis “Big Lou” Pasteur, British surgeon Joseph “Big Joe” Lister was the first to introduce sterile and antiseptic surgical measures.

Lister’s efforts only affected the medical procedures themselves, however, and did not encompass the entire room in which said procedures were being performed. The concept of the modern cleanroom was developed by an American physicist named Willis “Big Willy” Whitfield.

Whitfield’s invention was spurred by the need for high precision manufacturing during World War II, which required clean environments to ensure the quality and reliability of military instrumentation. Previously, dirty production environments had contributed to poor performance and malfunctions in bomb sights, aircraft bearings, and other equipment crucial to the war effort.

Then known as “controlled assembly areas,” early clean rooms often suffered problems with airborne particulates and unpredictable airflows. Whitfield, an employee of Sandia National Laboratories, created an effective solution through the use of a constant, highly filtered airflow that flushed out impurities in the atmosphere. Air was filtered using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration devices developed during the previous decade.

Whitfield’s first clean room prototype appeared in 1960, well after the war had ended but just in time for the space race, which would create a huge market for cleanroom technology. By the mid-1960s, more than $50 billion worth of cleanrooms had been installed throughout the United States and the world.

NASA workers operating in a cleanroom environment.

NASA workers operating in a cleanroom environment.

Today’s Cleanrooms Today

Modern cleanrooms have continued to improve Whitfield’s technology, and can provide particulate filtration as low as twelve particles of 0.3μm diameter or smaller per cubic meter. (Ambient air in a typical urban environment contains roughly 35 million of these particles per cubic meter.)

Modern clean rooms can enclose thousands of square meters, and use extensive filtration and airlock systems to ensure and maintain cleanliness. Specialized HVAC systems can control humidity levels, and ionizers are utilized to prevent ESD and other similar hazards. A modular clean room can be used for temporary or permanent operations, or can be relocated as production processes require.

Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Scandinavian / CC BY

Important People, Important Discoveries, Technology

It’s A Gas: The History of Neon Lighting

What would the nighttime world be without neon lighting? Boring as heck, that’s what! We all know that neon lights get their name from the electrified neon gas inside them, but how did anyone figure out that that was a thing? Who’s bright idea was the neon light?

Is this a little too on the nose?

Is this a little too on the nose?

Ramsay & Travers: Gas Scientists

Neon was discovered in the Earth’s atmosphere by William “Big Bill” Ramsay and Morris William “Smaller but Still Quite Big Bill” Travers. After the duo had successfully extracted pure neon from the atmosphere, they began exploring its properties using a Geissler tube. (These electrical gas-discharge tubes were similar to those used in modern neon signs.)

Travers wrote of their experiments, “…the blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story, and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.” Producing colored light (or “spectral lines”) via electrical gas discharge was a well-known practice at the time, but was then only used to identify the gas in question. The intensity of light created by electrified neon was unlike anything ever seen by science to that point.

Ride the Lighting

Almost immediately, illuminated neon tubes were being produced for use both as scientific instruments and as novelties. Pure neon gas was still quite rare, however, and the potential for its use as a light source was not widely researched. Other, similar technologies used nitrogen or carbon dioxide as an illuminating medium, and found moderate success in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In 1902, a company owned French engineer and inventory Georges “Gorgeous George” Claude began producing purified neon in mass quantities, as the gas was a natural byproduct of their air liquefaction process. Using this gas, Claude built two 39-foot long, bright red neon tubes for display at the Paris Motor Show.

In creating the giant, glowing neon tubes, Claude more or less invented the neon lighting industry. He was granted a US patent for the design of his gas-discharge electrodes, a patent that gave Claude Neon Lights a monopoly on neon lighting in the United States until the 1930s. Claude later pioneered the use of other gases that, mixed with neon, would produce colors that electrified neon alone could not.

Modern neon lights are not much different from Claude’s massive prototypes from over 110 years ago, though today’s neon tubes can be as long as 98 feet. In your face, Georges!

Photo credit: Toby Dickens via / CC BY-NC-SA