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The Vacuum Cleaner Was Harder to Invent Than You Might Think

The original vacuum cleaner required a number of improvements before becoming the household staple it is today

The familiar home vacuum was immediately predated by the carpet sweeper. (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

Hubert Cecil Booth was born to suck.

On this day in 1901, the inventor patented the vacuum in the U.K.–or an early version of it, at least. His machine, known as the “Puffing Billy,” was the size of a coach and had to be pulled by a horse from place to place–a far cry from the home Hoovers that would be on the market less than a decade later, but a significant improvement on everything that had come before.

Floor coverings like rugs have probably been around for about as long as there have been floors. Before vacuums, the standard technique for cleaning a rug was to hang it up outside and beat the dust and grime out of it with a paddle (known as a carpet beater). Carpet sweepers, which sucked up debris by mechanical means and weren’t motorized, came around in the 1860s, writes Curt Wohleber for Invention & Technology. But the technology to make an electric vacuum work took a little longer to come about.

In 1899, a St. Louis man named John S. Thurman patented the first (and only) “pneumatic carpet-renovator” that was powered by a motor rather than a human.  Although he’s sometimes credited with the invention of the vacuum, writes Wohleber, his machine really did the opposite: It “dislodged dust from carpets by blasting them with jets of compressed air. The dust was blown into a receptacle rather than being sucked in, as in the machine we know.”

Booth perceived the problems with this design the minute he saw it, writes Wohleber, when Thurman was in England demonstrating his invention. “I asked the inventor why he did not suck out the dust for he seemed to be going round three sides of a house to get across the front,” Booth recalled. Then, “the inventor became heated, remarked that sucking out dust was impossible and that it had been tried over and over again without success; then he walked away.”

Thurman was right: Producing suction was a mechanical challenge. But Booth managed it, and his machines "became the talk of the town,"writes the BBC. “He was called upon to perform a number of unusual jobs–like cleaning the girders of Crystal Palace, which were suffering from accumulated dust.” He used 15 of his machines to remove literal tons of dust from the building.

When a customer’s home or business needed cleaning, a Puffing Billy was parked outside and a team of workers lugged hoses in through the doors and windows,” Wohleger writes. Although this had obvious commercial applications, it probably didn’t make the life of the average householder any simpler.

“While Booth’s invention worked well, it wasn’t compact nor meant for personal home use,” writes Matt Blitz for Today I Found Out. “But through the early 1900s, patents across the world were submitted to try to capitalize on this new innovation.”

The one who succeeded had a more personal stake in the vacuum. James Murray Spangler worked as a department store janitor who invented on the side. He had asthma, writes Blitz, which didn’t exactly interact well with his job of cleaning a dusty department store. He writes:

To solve this issue, Spangler made his own vacuum cleaner from a tin soapbox, a sateen pillowcase (as a dust collector), and a broom handle. Inside of the box, he had an electric motor he pulled from a sewing machine which powered a fan and a rotating brush. The crudely-made machine collected dirt and blew it out the back, where it was caught by an attached dust bag (the pillowcase).

He called it the “suction sweeper.” Thankfully, his cousin Susan Hoover (yes, that Hoover) also thought it was a good idea and told her husband, industrialist William Hoover. They're still making vacuums with the Hoover name today. 

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