Healthy home, healthy you: the history of vacuums

From horse-drawn combustion engines to pillow case inserts, the humble vacuum cleaner has come a long way since its inception more than 150 years ago.

Where early editions required a person to manually crank a bellow to pump air around the filter, now all it takes is a press of a button to quickly spruce up your space.

To see how vacuums became the efficient, hi-tech cleaning devices we know and love today. Take a look, below.

American power

Believe or not, before there was electricity to power vacuums cleaners, manual versions did all the dirty work. The history books tell us that Daniel Hess, of Iowa, invented the earliest model of its kind in 1860 . This ‘carpet sweeper’ gathered air with a rotating brush, before using bellows to suck the debris into the filter.

This was soon followed by the “Whirlwind” in 1869, designed by Ives W. McGaffey. Unlike Hess’ invention, this was operated by cranking a belt-driven fan by hand. Then, just eight years later, Melville R. Bissell of Michigan designed a similar model, although this had a central bearing brush. However, this vacuum is often remembered not for its award-winning design, but for its visionary marketing; Bissell’s belief in advertising saw sales sky-rocket, and he is still referenced today as the first vacuum inventor to promote products.

Electricity boost

Soon after, Thomas Edison famously filed a patent for an electric lamp with a carbon filament in 1879 . This would later prove to be a harbinger for a series of electrical inventions which proliferated around the world.

However, while electricity inspired numerous new vacuuming models, there was one which was especially revolutionary: it was called the “Pneumatic Carpet Renovator.” This device blew dust into a receptacle before forcing out the heavier dust particles and sending back purified air back through a nozzle. So impressive was this device that it was quickly sealed with a patent by its inventor, John S. Thurman .

The British boom

Up until the end of the 19th century, most – if not all – vacuum-related inventions originated from the Land of the Free. However, at the turn of the 20th century, many British inventors began to turn their attention to domestic cleaning devices.

In fact, it was during 1901 that Hubert Cecil Booth (a British engineer) teamed up with David T. Kenney (an American inventor) to create a horse-drawn combustion engine. This device pumped air through a cloth filter and used suction power to sweep up the debris. This would be the first of its kind to be called a “Vacuum Cleaner”.

However, despite the accelerated rate of vacuum innovation during this time, the earlier iterations were still clunky and awkward to operate. That was until Walter Griffiths of Birmingham, England, designed the oh-so catchy “Griffiths Improved Vacuum Apparatus for Removing Dust from Carpets”. Ironically, this tongue-twister was the simplest vacuum design yet and is often cited as being the first version of the modern cleaners we use today.

Just five years after Griffiths’ invention, James B. Kirkby invented the “Domestic Cyclone”, or what would later be called the “Kirkby Vacuum Cleaner.” Unlike previous models, it used water to successfully separate and flush out dirt – quite the engineering feat at the time.

High voltage vacuuming

Vacuum cleaner technology with Gtech

The first portable electric vacuum cleaner came from an unlikely source. Where only acclaimed engineers and inventors had created electrical cleaners up until this point, the next iteration in vacuum technology came from a department store janitor. His name was James Murray Spangler of Ohio, and he secured the patent for the Electric Suction Sweeper in 1908.

The unique selling point of Spangler’s mechanism was its internal operating system; the electric fan blew dirt into a soap box and, delightfully, into one of his wife’s pillow cases. To loosen debris, a rotating brush was included.

His dream to become the next big name in the cleaning industry fell short, however, as he failed to secure funding. Thankfully, a local leather goods manufacturer, one William Henry Hoover, was eager to take the risk. He had accrued plenty of wealth over the years and soon got to work redesigning Spangler’s machine with steel casings, casters, and other expensive attachments.

Naturally, these flashy new devices took on the Hoover branding and sales soared. Today, the Hoover name is so synonymous with general cleaning that the term ‘hoovering’ is now used as a catch-all term to describe the act of vacuuming.

Modern-day vacuums

Innovation in the cleaning sector elevated sensationally in the 20th century. As a result, a new suite of domestic products were invented to help homeowners keep on top of their daily chores. The first electric irons, gas cookers, washing machines appeared during this time, while vacuums became cheaper, more common and, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, more hi-tech.

Using the advancements of the era, filter-less cyclones were soon developed to separate dirt from air more efficiently, while practical applications such as cordless, rechargeable, hand-held and autonomous vacuums expanded the product range. This meant that the previously bulky vacuums which were reserved for big domestic chores could be taken out of the home.

Today, vacuum cleaners come in all shapes and sizes, with their designs tailored to specific cleaning jobs. Stick models, for instance, are purpose-built for cleaning narrow spots, while upright models tackle bigger jobs which require more power, such as for cleaning pet hairs from carpets.

For more information about vacuums, or to see our range of Gtech cleaners, take a look at our fantastic product list.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum_cleaner

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Edison

3 https://patents.google.com/patent/US634042A/en