Evolution of the vacuum cleaner from a horse-drawn machine to a small domestic robot

Retro vacuum cleaner with accessories

A ubiquitous household item today, the vacuum cleaner has a long history and took about a century from its invention to its integration into domestic life. The modern vacuum cleaner has its beginnings in the carpet sweepers and manual vacuum cleaners introduced in the 19th century. Two of the first manual models include the model invented by Daniel Hess in 1860 and McGaffey’s “Whirlwind” from 1869.

By the end of the century, the first powered vacuum cleaners appeared, although some of them didn’t use suction for cleaning, but blew air instead. In 1898 John S.Thurman constructed his “pneumatic carpet renovator” which was a gasoline-powered invention. Thurman’s cleaner blew dust into a receptacle. The device he made was huge, and he had to travel to customers’ homes with it by horse-drawn carriage.

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An early hand-pumped vacuum cleaner. Author: Royalbroil. CC BY-SA 3.0

The invention of the principle of “suction“ as we know it is attributed to the British engineer Hubert Cecil Booth in 1901. Booth was inspired when by one of Thurman’s machines at the Empire Music Hall in London. He discussed the efficacy of the machine and wondered why it didn’t suck the dust instead of blowing it. According to the Atlantic, Booth tested the idea of vacuum at a restaurant, trying to suck the dust from a chair with his mouth, using a handkerchief. Booth’s new creation was called the “Puffing Billy” and was powered by an internal combustion engine. It was horse-drawn and too big to fit in a building so its tubes were inserted into a home through the windows. In 1902 he was commissioned to clean Westminster Abbey for the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Apparently, they were so impressed by the machine that they purchased two of them: one for Windsor Castle and one for Buckingham Palace.

Early electric vacuum cleaner by the Electric Suction Sweeper Company, circa 1908, the predecessor of Hoover vacuum cleaners (1922). Exhibit in National Museum of American History, Washington, DC, USA.

At roughly the same time, two American inventors developed vacuum cleaners based on Booth’s idea. The first one was Corinne Dufour, who invented a cleaner that would suck the dust into a wet sponge. The other was David E. Kenney, who constructed a huge stationary steam engine powered system with pipes and hoses to reach every room of a building.

James Murray Spangler.

Booth’s model found its way into buildings and the big homes of the wealthy, but not the ordinary homes. The first portable electric vacuum cleaner was invented in 1907 by James Murray Spangler, a department store janitor from Ohio. Frequent asthma attacks he suffered after using the sweeper drove him to construct a machine using an electric fan motor, a broom handle, a soapbox, and one of his wife’s pillowcases.

Hoover showroom in the late 1920s. Author: INTV1980. CC BY-SA 3.0

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Spangler tried to mass-produce his product but due to lack of finances, he wasn’t able to. In 1908 he showed one of his vacuum cleaners to his cousin Susan Hoover. After she tested it, she prompted her husband William Hoover to buy it. In 1908, Hoover, a leather goods manufacturer, bought the patent and redesigned the product. After investing in marketing, development and door-to-door salesmen, Hoover made Spangler’s invention a tremendous success and his name remained written in history.

Debut ad for the Hoover Model 29, the first Hoover cleaner made in red. Author: INTV1980. CC BY-SA 3.0

European companies also produced vacuum cleaners in the early 20th century. The Danish company Fisker and Nielsen was the first to sell them. The Swedish company Electrolux introduced a model in 1921 with two metal runners so the vacuum cleaner could lie on the floor, which later became a standard feature.

Electrolux vacuum cleaner (model 30), designed in 1937 by Lurelle Guild.

In 1926, The Hoover company introduced the first commercial upright vacuum cleaner, which proved to be a very successful design. The next decade brought the first plastic vacuum cleaners and changes in the cleaner’s bags. During World War II, HEPA filters were developed. As the years passed, vacuum cleaners became smaller, neater, and more stylish.

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Vacuum cleaner, circa 1945, manufactured by Fairfax Industries, Washington, DC, USA.

Hoover introduced a vacuum cleaner with an unusual design in the 1950s called the Constellation. The canister vacuum cleaner didn’t have wheels, it was designed to imitate a hovercraft, floating on its exhaust. However, production was discontinued in 1975.

Universal Rocket Shaped Canister Vacuum Cleaner, Model VC6702, Circa 1947. Author: Joe Haupt. CC BY-SA 2.0

In the late 70s, the British inventor James Dyson had the idea of using cyclonic separation in vacuum cleaners. In 1983 he launched his “G-Force” model in Japan because no manufacturer would produce and sell it in the UK. After more than ten years since the original idea, he introduced the product in the UK. Dyson became one of the most popular brands in the UK and the US.

Hoover Constellation of 1960. Author: Rama. CC BY-SA 2.0 fr

Today, there are many dozens of models of vacuum cleaners, all in different shapes and sizes, some powered by batteries and models that not only collect dust but also liquids. Some vacuums are even robotic so they move and clean on their own. It took the vacuum cleaner many years of development and refinement to reach every home, but today it is difficult to imagine a western household without one.