Vacuum cleaners have almost become indispensable over the past few decades. As technology has moved to greater heights, vacuum cleaners have become more powerful and smaller in size at the same time. They’re no longer the clunky machines that need to be literally dragged along from one room to the other. And don’t even get me started on the horror of carrying a vacuum cleaner up the stairs. It used to feel like an intense workout session instead of a weekend cleaning session.
However, what’s truly incredible is that since the first vacuum cleaner-like machine saw the light of day, the basic design of this machine and the way it functions haven’t changed a lot.
The Emergence of the Cleaning Machine
In the mid-19th century, inventors realised that the trusty broom was no longer enough and that there was a need for a machine that can take care of the cleaning duties in a household. A few designs of mechanical sweepers already existed at this time, but it was Daniel Hess in 1860 who introduced the concept of drawing in or sucking in dust and dirt using air. He patented this design. However, the stumbling block for this design was the fact that it was manually operated. The suction power created manually using a bellows simply wasn’t effective.
An inventor named Ives McGaffey took this concept one step further about a decade later in 1869. He added a fan to accomplish the task of drawing in the dust, while the machine itself stood upright and horizontal to the ground. Though he replaced the bellows with a fan, it still had to be operated via a hand crank. In addition, the machine was priced quite high. So, it was a complete failure.
The Power Revolution
The primary reason why these initial designs proved ineffective was that the suction was being powered by manual labour. When petroleum-based fuel became a viable option by the late 19th century, it triggered innovations that led to the creation of the modern vacuum cleaner.
John Thurman’s pneumatic carpet cleaner, which was powered by petroleum or gasoline, as it’s referred to in the United States, came into existence in 1898. However, instead of sucking in dust it blew dust into a hollow container. Plus, it was as big as a horse-drawn carriage.
It was British engineer Hubert Cecil Booth who recognised the potential in this and reverse engineered the machine to use suction power to clean up dust and dirt. In the early years of the 20th century, his machine became quite popular among the rich and famous in London. In fact, it was also used to clean Westminster Abbey. However, the one thing he couldn’t accomplish was to reduce the size of the machine or bring its price down to a level where the average household could afford it.
William Hoover Comes into the Picture
The name Hoover became synonymous with vacuum cleaners in the early decades of the 20th century and has remained so till date. But William Hoover didn’t invent the vacuum cleaner and neither did a janitor in the United States called James Murray Sprangler, who is often mistakenly called the inventor of the modern vacuum. What Sprangler did was adopt Booth’s concepts and create a machine based on them that was portable and therefore less expensive.
In his initial design, he replaced the fuel-powered contraption with an electric ceiling fan motor and added a pillowcase to capture the dust and dirt. This itself made a significant difference. The motor made the cleaning machine light enough to be carried from one place to another by a regular human being. There was no need for a carriage or the need for it to be installed in one spot inside the house.
While the addition of the pillowcase was arguably more important, for the first time, it brought into focus the importance of containing the dust collected during the process of cleaning. Sprangler is known to have suffered from asthma due to the long hours spent cleaning. Adding a pillowcase triggered a change in vacuum cleaner design that has probably saved millions from asthma.
In 1907, Sprangler was able to patent his design and set up his own company called Electric Suction Sweeper Company. To begin with, there was no dearth of investors either. Everyone saw the potential in the machine and wanted him to begin production. However, soon after Sprangler came under severe financial stress and was on verge of losing his house — which he had put up as collateral — is where William Hoover comes into the picture.
The Vacuum Cleaner as We Know It
Hoover’s wife, Susan Hoover was Sprangler’s cousin. She was also one of the first people to have used Sprangler’s vacuum cleaner. When Sprangler’s financial duress reached a critical stage, Susan introduced him to her husband. Hoover had a thriving leather goods manufacturing business. In 1908, Hoover bought the patent for the design from Sprangler and invested heavily in marketing as well as research and development.
It’s hard to say if the vacuum cleaner in its current avatar would have existed if Hoover didn’t believe in the product and pour in investments at that stage or not. The one certain thing is that the basic design of the modern vacuum cleaner remains more or less the same as Sprangler’s initial electric motor-pillowcase design.
Vacuum cleaners have become a lot quieter, especially since the clampdown by the European Commission. They have also become a lot faster, which is often misrepresented as higher suction power. What they fail to mention is that because of this vacuums wear down faster as well and need more frequent replacements. Nowadays, vacuums also include a number of bells and whistles in the form of accessories and colours.
The two areas where there have been significant improvements over the years are the size and portability of the vacuums and the quality of the air filters. Vacuums are a lot smaller these days, making it possible to clean areas that were hard to reach. The air filters clean a higher percentage of minute dust particles now than ever before, especially the HEPA filters which are particularly efficient.
But the vacuums themselves essentially still function in the same way and no major innovations have happened since then.