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Dusting Off the History of Vacuum Cleaners!

Team StoryWeavers|June 30, 2020|

You’ve been having a really hectic schedule off-late. Your mother especially asked you this week to clean your room on your own. Every day you would look at the floor and think to your self that tomorrow you will take out some time and do some dusting around the room, but it’s almost the end of the week now! The carpet on the floor makes your feet dustier after you walk on it. Everywhere except your bed seems to be wearing a shroud of dust on it. If only there was a way to clean it all with the flick of a magic wand, perhaps a scouring charm from the Harry Potter universe? But this is reality, the closest you can come to magic here is often technology.

And technology’s best solution to this problem is the vacuum cleaner! All it takes is to move its brush around anything dusty and whoosh! Like magic, it makes things look squeaky clean!

Did you ever wonder how this amazing device was made? What is its story? Let’s explore that. 

A vacuum cleaner, also known as vacuum, is a device that uses suction to remove dust and other debris from floors, upholstery, draperies and other surfaces. 

How does it work?

Imagine using a straw while sipping your favourite juice. As you suck the air out from the straw, the juice from the glass takes it place. So your mouth creates a sort of vacuum or empty space inside the straw causing suction inside the straw. Due to the difference in atmospheric pressure on the liquid inside the straw and outside it (in the glass), the liquid flows into the straw as long as you continue to suck on the straw. 

Similarly, in a vacuum cleaner, the job of sucking is done by a motor. The rotating fan of the motor sucks the air in from the nozzle at the end of the pipe and creates a vacuum. Strictly speaking, this is not a vacuum rather a low air pressure zone. Whatever dust and other small debris that comes in the way of this pipe gets sucked in by the pipe and is then stored inside the machine in a bag, that can be emptied out later.  

History of the vacuum cleaner

Manual vacuum cleaners – 1860 – 1880s:

Model of Daniel Hess's 'Carpet Sweeper'

Model of Daniel Hess’s ‘Carpet Sweeper’; source: vacexpert

Daniel Hess from Iowa, USA, in 1860 invented a manual vacuum cleaner. It was called a “carpet sweeper”. It used bellows for generating suction and gathered dust with a rotating brush. In 1869 Ives W McGaffey, from Chicago invented the “Whirlwind” model, which had a belt-driven fan, that had to be operated manually. 

A Bellow

       A Bellow

Manual to powered vacuum cleaners – 1890s to early 20th century:

An artists representation of 'Puffing Billy' source: indiatoday

An artists representation of ‘Puffing Billy’ source: indiatoday

The late 19th century and 20th century saw the introduction of powered vacuum cleaners. Some of the early models came with some variation, that of blowing air instead of suction called dedusting pumps. In 1898 John S Thurman came up with a model that was powered by an internal combustion engine. It was popularly known as ‘Puffing Billy’. His team used to travel to customers’ residences as a part of the door to door cleaning service. In 1899 Corrine Dufour from Georgia patented another blown air system that featured an electric motor in the machine. Hubert Cecil Booth in 1901 patented vacuum cleaners that used suction, with the air being pumped through a cloth filter. He and another American inventor David Kenney coined the term “vacuum cleaners”

Portable Domestic vacuum Cleaners – 1906 – 1926:

Vacuum Cleaner by James Spangler; source: vacexpert

Vacuum Cleaner by James Spangler; source: vacexpert

In 1905 Walter Griffits came up with vacuum cleaners that resembled modern-day cleaners, but the most significant breakthrough was in 1907 when James Murray Spangler, a departmental store janitor, invented the first electric suction sweeper, which he patented later in 1908. He used the existing carpet sweepers and placed an electric motor from a sewing machine on it. He also introduced fan blades at the back of the box. The motor rotated brushes of the sweeper which ultimately removed dust from the floor and the fan blades sucked the air from the box, moving it into a dust bag (which Spangler made from a pillowcase). 

Unfortunately due to his unstable financial situation, Spangler had to sell his patent to William Henry Hoover, who redesigned Spangler’s system into a sturdier version with steel casing, attachments and casters.  In 1922 he established the Hoover Company that became so famous that eventually vacuum cleaners came to known by the name ‘Hoovers’ in those times.

1927 – Late 20th Century:

Electrolux Trilobite Robotic Vacuum Cleaner

Electrolux Trilobite Robotic Vacuum Cleaner

For many years, vacuum cleaners remained a relatively luxurious household item.  But after the second world war, it started becoming a common household item in western countries. Over the years, the technology in vacuum cleaners evolved. One of the key developments being the use of cyclonic dirt separation by James Dyson, founder of Dyson Ltd. Cyclonic separation uses ‘vortex separation’ instead of filters to remove dust and other particles from air, gas or liquid. A vortex refers to a region around which the flow (in this case airflow) revolves. Whirlpools, cyclones and dust storms are all formed around a vortex.

In 1997, Electrolux came up with the autonomous robotic vacuum cleaners, the first model being the Electrolux Trilobite. Whereas in India, Dynavac and Eureka Forbes were some of the first Indian brands that started manufacturing vacuum cleaners around the early 1980s

Recent Developments:

Airider vacuum cleaner ; source: youtube

     Airider vacuum cleaner; source: youtube

In 2004 a company named Airider launched the world’s only floating vacuum cleaner, which hovers in the air like a hovercraft. It is one of the most lightweight and easy to operate vacuum cleaners compared to the earlier wheel-based systems.

Starting all the way from being a manual stationary device, vacuum cleaners have come a long way to becoming an autonomous robotic machine. Vacuum cleaners are really no less than magic when it comes to doing a repetitive and boring task like cleaning and dusting. It truly brings to life the words of Arthur Clarke, a science fiction writer, who famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

But it’s human tendency to always want more. In the near future, perhaps we will invent a robot that could clean up any kind of mess? What device do you wish existed? Share with us in the comment section.

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