Nearly every household today has a vacuum cleaner at home that people tend to neglect its history, and I often wondered, how did it all start?
As I did my research, some conflicting stories needed further investigating, and as soon I pieced together all the data, the puzzle soon started to take shape.
I’ve created an infographic to give you a bird’s eye view of the history of vacuum cleaners and their milestones.
Authors note: I’ve based all this info on facts I gathered from different websites and the UK and US patent records listed in the infographic and citations section.
Before the advent of vacuum cleaners, people relied on brooms, dustpans, and sticks to clean carpets and rugs. As any homemaker would know, using a broom on a carpet is a losing proposition as sweeping dirt that clings on it was highly inefficient and a time-consuming task.
To clean up rugs, they had to be hung outside and beaten with a stick to take out dust – this was very unhygienic as the one hitting the mat would inhale the dust.
During the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s, factories sprang up left and right, manufacturing all sorts of stuff, producing tons of pollution. Dirt and soot were everywhere, causing a lot of people to get sick. At the same time, a scientist named Louis Pasteur discovered that these were caused by microorganisms or “germs.”
For the first time, people emphasized hygiene, and inventors started experimenting with ways to automate this process.
The first machines invented didn’t rely on suction but used either a brush or a sponge to pick up dirt.
While some say Daniel Hess invented the first sweeper, I found out that the first recorded invention in the US patents database is the carpet sweeper patented by Hiram H. Herrick in 1858. It wasn’t successful, though, because of its complexity and inefficiency.
In 1860, Daniel Hess patented his version of the carpet sweeper that used bellows to produce suction, but it wasn’t mass-produced like H.H. Herrick’s sweeper.
In 1868, Ives McGaffey invented the “whirlwind sweeping machine” made from wood. Even though it was lightweight and compact (at least during that era), it was difficult to use because one had to turn a crank and at the same time push manually. Turning the crank created the suction needed to pick up dirt.
He received his patent a year after in 1869.
To mass-produce and sell this, he sought the help of The American Carpet Cleaning Co. It sold for around $25.
Unfortunately, the great Chicago fire in 1871 burned up most of them, and only two are known to have survived the fire, one of them is found in the Hoover Historical Center.
Melvin Bissell invented a push-powered carpet sweeper he called the “Grand Rapids” for his wife Anna out of necessity to pick up sawdust left off the carpet in their shop.
He patented it in 1876.
When customers asked where they could buy his machine, a business was born.
Unfortunately, Melvin Bissell passed away unexpectedly in 1889, and Anna took over the business as America’s first female CEO.
The Dawn of Motorized Cleaners
The first motorized cleaners didn’t come into the scene until 1898 when John Thurman invented the first gasoline-powered cleaner he called the “pneumatic carpet renovator” for the General Compressed Air Company.
He then filed for a patent and got it in 1899.
It wasn’t a portable device since it needed a horse-drawn carriage to move around.
John Thurman would later offer his cleaning services in St. Louis for $4/visit.
Though some consider his invention to be the first motorized vacuum cleaner, it didn’t use suction.
But instead, it used compressed air to blow dust and dirt off the surface, and since it didn’t have any dust collecting mechanism, dirt would settle back on the surface.
Because of this, someone filed a lawsuit against his patent.
Judge Augustus Hand said that the design “does not appear to have attempted to design a vacuum cleaner or to have understood the process of vacuum cleaning.”
In 1900, Corinne Dufour invented the first electric carpet sweeper that used wet sponges to pick up dirt.
Despite being a sweeper, some historians believed this was the first electric-powered vacuum in history.
First Electric Vacuum Cleaner
Hubert Cecil Booth had one of the most substantial claims of inventing the first motorized vacuum cleaner.
Some credited him to be the first to coin “vacuum cleaner,” although this was disputed. He was the first to utilize a tube to suck in filth.
Business Insider called his machine one of the 50 greatest British Inventions.
After watching a demonstration by another inventor whose machine blew the dust off chairs – this inventor though unnamed, was believed to be John Thurman, he thought that it’d be more useful if the device would suck in the dirt instead of blowing it off the surface.
To test his theory, he laid down a handkerchief on a restaurant chair then put his mouth on it trying to suck up as much dirt as possible on the cloth.
He succeeded in his experiment and thought that his idea would work.
His initial invention relied on an internal combustion engine but later upgraded it to an electric motor. Suction comes from a piston pump, and cloth was used as a filter.
It was big, so a horse-drawn carriage was needed to transport it and used many long hoses with nozzles at the end of it to clean rooms.
The Forgotten NJ Inventor
While many people credit Hubert Cecil Booth for having invented the first electric vacuum cleaner, NJ plumber and self-taught inventor David T. Kenny also had his share of supporters. New York Times hailed him as the “father of the vacuum cleaner industry” in 1910.
He filled for his first patent in 1901 but only got it six years later after an appeal. While waiting for his patent, he installed a steam engine at the basement of the Frick Building in Pittsburgh. It was equipped with pipes and hoses to reach every part of the building.
Additionally, he filled for 7 more patents between 1901 and 1907, these include:
- #739,263 – awarded in 1903
- #807,283 – awarded in 1905
- #781,532 – awarded in 1905
- #826,513 – awarded in 1906
- #841,984 – awarded in 1907
- #907,694 – awarded in 1908
- #963,049 – awarded in 1906
During this period, many vacuums, both machine-driven or manually powered, relied on the nozzle patented by Kenny.
All in all, he was awarded nine patents, which laid the foundation for the American vacuum cleaner industry.
Here’s a short video on the life and invention of David T. Kenny
The First Portable Vacuum
Walter Griffiths invented the first portable vacuum in 1905.
It had a flexible pipe and a variety of nozzles that can be removed and are interchangeable to clean different parts of the home. It was a manually powered vacuum that used a bellows-like device to suck up dirt.
The flexible hose and nozzles look like the hose and nozzles of modern vacuums we have at home.
Champman and Skinner invented an electric movable vacuum cleaner that relied on an 18″ fan to produce suction in the same year.
Even though it was called movable it tipped the scales at 92 pounds. Women couldn’t move this, so it wasn’t much of a success.
Kirby Vacuums Was Born
In 1906, Jim Kirby he invented his first vacuum that used water to separate dirt.
After watching his mother’s failed cleaning efforts, he did this because dust would settle back again onto everything. A year after, frustrated by the hassle of disposing of dirty water, he made improvements and developed a system that used centrifugal action and cloth to filter dirt.
In the same year, Hermans Bogenschild applied for a patent for his “dust removing apparatus” mounted on wheels. It had a motor connected to a hose and filtration system. Not much was written about this, but I added it here just for your reference.
The Hoover Brand
In 1908, James Murray Spangler, a janitor from Ohio, invented the first portable electric suction cleaner.
He did this because, being an asthmatic, he wanted something to keep dust out in his workplace. His prototype used a broom handle, pillowcase, a tin soapbox, and motor-driven fan blades for suction.
Later, he would sell his patent to his cousin’s husband, William “the boss” Hoover, because he lacked funds to mass-produce his invention.
He would become a partner in the Hoover Company. His earlier prototype would pave the way for the Model O, Hoover’s first vacuum, sold for $60.
I found it!
In 1909, Detroit businessman Fred Wardell established the Eureka Vacuum Company.
Eureka is Greek for “I found it,” and Wardell named his company because they pride themselves on developing innovative products.
They were among the first to manufacture lightweight and easy to maneuver vacuum cleaners that had accessories to clean upholstery, walls, and bare floors.
The Introduction of AC/DC Motor
Then in 1910, two engineers from Racine Wisconsin, Charles Beach, Frederick Osius, along with Louis Hamilton, made appliance history by developing a small motor that ran on AC or DC electric power.
Scott and Fetzer
Their partnership started in 1919, and together, they produced some of the more innovative vacuums to ever come out during that era, like the Vacuette, the predecessor of multi-attachment vacuum cleaners in the market today.
Airway Sanitizer, a company from Toledo, patented the first vacuum cleaner that used a disposable bag.
Electrolux Comes to America
Gustaf Sahlin, a Swedish businessman, brought the Electrolux Tank Type cleaner to the United States and established Electrolux USA. It became an instant success and set the standard for excellence. [Electrolux USA is no more].
Improving the Beater Bar
By 1926 Hoover was a dominant player in the vacuum industry, and it was time to upgrade their brush bar that other manufacturers would be using once the patent expires.
Their solution was positive agitation, which means adding metal beater bars to its rotating brush roll will not wear out.
These metal brushes were attached to remove dirt tucked in deep at the bottom of carpet and rugs, and this increased cleaning efficiency by 101%. Hoover termed this “it beats as it sweeps as it cleans” in one of its marketing campaigns, and it was very successful.
By the 1930s, manufacturers used plastic instead of metal to reduce weight and lower production costs. Later on, headlights were placed in higher-end models.
In 1935, the Kirby Model C was introduced to the market by Scott and Fetzer. This was the first in a long line of products that carried Jim Kirby’s name.
By 1950 the first upright convertible vacuums hit the market.
Is it a HOOVERcraft or a Vac?
In 1954, Hoover introduced a unique product that floats on a cushion of air. This cylinder-type vacuum was called the Constellation.
It didn’t have any wheels and used air from its exhaust to “float.” Hoover stopped production in 1975 but has since re-introduced an upgraded version.
Vacuums for Hotels
In 1963, David Oreck started manufacturing vacuum cleaners for hotels and established his company, Oreck Corp.
His products were lightweight yet durable and robust, and hotel staff would prefer Oreck vacuums over other brands. The idea was a success, and now over 50,000 hotels use their products worldwide.
America, stop pushing
In 1969, the first self-propelled vacuums manufactured by Hoover were introduced to the market.
James Dyson’s idea of a bag-less vacuum came about after being frustrated with his bagged vacuum cleaner constantly losing suction power. In 1978 he built the first of more than 5000 prototypes (5,127 to be exact), and he needed five years to perfect his Dual Cyclone technology.
He would later offer this technology to every major brand, but no one would touch it. The first Dyson vacuum available commercially was the GForce which debuted in 1986 (in Japan!).
He was a pioneer because he was the first to adapt bag-less technology in a field that used to be dominated by bagged vacuums. Today, Dyson is one of the more successful brands in this field, with record sales of £1.06 in 2011 alone.
The Cordless Vacuum
The following year, with the help of designer Carroll Gantz, Black and Decker introduced the handheld dustbuster, the first cordless cleaner manufactured.
It was their most successful product ever, with over a hundred million sold worldwide. Until this day, Black & Decker still uses the “Dust Buster” in their current handheld cleaners.
In 1997, Swedish manufacturer Electrolux unveiled a prototype of the first robotic vacuum cleaner, the Tribolite, in BBC’s Tomorrows World.
It wasn’t commercially available until 2001. It uses ultrasonic sensors to detect obstacles, and if it needs recharging, it automatically goes to the dock by itself to recharge.
Helen Greiner would often get the question, “Can you make a robot that will clean my house?” when she and her colleagues introduced themselves.
So they got to work and developed Roomba, which debuted in 2002, putting their company (iRobot) on the map. It was a hit.
Jake Tyler, an industrial design student at Loughborough University who was working on his final-year degree project, got the idea of using recycled corrugated cardboard to reduce waste in manufacturing vacuum cleaners.
He developed this while working at cleaning giant Vax as part of their student placement scheme.
This product impressed the people at Vax enough that they’ve hired him and started a limited production run to see how consumers will receive this product.
- Selected images courtesy of Charles Richard Lester, www.1377731.com
- Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library, www.scienceandsociety.co.uk