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The Origin of the Vacuum Cleaner

The inventor’s friends had been “urging him for about a quarter of a century” to set down the history of the vacuum cleaner in writing.

In this paper, he describes how he came to design the first cleaner, evaluates the various previous patents, relates his litigation experiences and discusses the technology’s adoption in the early 20th century – long before it was ever called a ‘hoover’!

How it Began

“My attention was first directed to the mechanical removal of dust from carpets in 1901 through a demonstration of the American machine by its inventor at the Empire Music Hall, where I attended by invitation of a friend.

The machine consisted of a box about a foot square having a bag on the top, and to which compressed air at 90lb pressure was supplied; the air was blown down into the carpet from two opposing directions while the box was pushed over the carpet, and the inventor trusted to the reflection from the surface underneath the carpet to drive the dust and air up into the box.

original vacuum cleaner

I remarked that I could not see how one could get the dust out effectively in this way as much must be blown out sideways; further, a cushion or seat where there was no back to reflect the air could not be cleaned. I asked the inventor why he did not

I asked the inventor why he did not suck out the dust for he seemed to be going round three sides of a house to get across the front. The inventor became heated, remarked that sucking out dust was impossible and that it had been tried over and over again without success; he then walked away.

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I thought over the matter for a few days and tried the experiment of sucking with my mouth against the back of a plush seat in a restaurant in Victoria Street with the result that I was almost choked. I came to the conclusion that I could construct a machine to work by suction. A friend offered to finance experiments and I went ahead…

Forming the Company

A company called the Vacuum Cleaner Company Limited, later named the British Vacuum Cleaner & Engineering Company Limited, was formed to exploit the patent, the foreign rights were sold to nearly all the European countries and America, and the use of the vacuum cleaner spread with considerable rapidity.

Almost the first work which the original machine did was to clean the great blue coronation carpet under the Throne at Westminster Abbey prior to the coronation of his late Majesty King Edward VII, and by his command it was used to give a demonstration to him and the late Queen Alexandra at Buckingham Palace on 23rd October 1902.

Later it was demonstrated to President Fallières at the Elysée Palace, Paris and afterward to the Emperor William II and the late Tzar Nicholas II at Darmstadt. You will be interested to hear perhaps that the late Sultan Abdul Hamid of Turkey shortly after this bought a similar machine for his own use in Constantinople…

I have been asked about the quantity of dust removed – this was really astonishing – eg two machines took half a ton of dust out of the carpets of one of the large shops in the West End in one night. During the war, there was a serious outbreak of spotted fever amongst the men of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at Crystal Palace and there were a number of deaths there. An officer from the Admiralty visited me and said that it was desired to clean out the Crystal Palace and that they wanted a vacuum cleaner: “one of those things that you stick onto the electric light fittings”.

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I replied that I would send down a fleet of machines that afternoon if I were given the order. About 15 high power machines were actually sent, and within 3 or 4 weeks the dust, which had been inches deep on the girders, was removed, to the amount of 26 tons, and buried. I understood that the health of the men at once improved…

old time vacuum

The question may, I think, reasonably be asked, and was indeed asked and fought out in no uncertain manner by the leaders of the English bar, as to whether the machine which I had made and patented in 1901 could truly be called an invention…my own patent protection was always upheld in repeated attacks through all the courts, including the House of Lords. Altogether, twenty-three judges expressed their opinions on this matter, nineteen being in my favor and four against in minority judgments.

The Challenge

This machine did much to familiarize people with such a method of cleaning… There were, however, many difficulties which had to be met with and overcome, for instance, in the early days of 1901 to 1903 it was assumed by the police authorities that the machine had no right to work on a public thoroughfare. Many summonses per month were issued… Furthermore, the Vacuum Company was frequently sued for damages for allegedly frightening cab horses in the street…

old vacuum salesman

As the automobile industry improved, the form of cleaner for the house to house work had its pump and dust collector mounted in an automobile van, the suction hose being led away as before from the machine into the house… For fixed or central installations in larger buildings, the general form has remained unchanged with the exception that frequently the modern multi-stage turbine fan giving high vacuum and volume is substituted for the pump, and of course improvements in details have from time to time been made.

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To the best of my recollection, the first central installation was made on the premises of Messrs Dickins and Jones of Regent Street, London, and soon after that one was installed in the House of Commons. Theaters, hotels and railway companies also rapidly adopted this system of cleaning.”

In the ensuing discussion, two particularly interesting points were raised:

  1. Mr. J Foster Pertree wondered whether Sir Charles Parsons might possibly have experimented with vacuum cleaners for his turbines. The inventor was not sure, though he did know that his vacuum cleaners had been applied to cleaning turbine blading in destroyers and submarines, and central plants had been used to deal with TNT dust.
  2. Rex Wailes quoted the description of vacuum cleaning by Arnold Bennett in his novel of 1923, “Riceyman Steps”.
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