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The Invention Of The Vacuum Cleaner

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A Teacher Asks

Do you know how I can find who invented it, on the web?

Thank you,

     this is for my Kindergarten students.

        Jean Stringer

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By Donald Kelly

Don't read this if you are not interested in:

1. vacuum cleaner origins,

2. the role of serendipity in the invention process, or

3. another example of how women have influenced the course of innovation.

Ms. Stringer's Question:

Ms. Julie Stringer's question (forwarded by Ron Riley to this Forum and me) concerning the origin of the vacuum cleaner was perhaps adequately answered by a number of site suggestions from the InventNet members.  Nonetheless, last evening I couldn't help but pore through my wall full of independent inventor vignettes (yes, I should get a life).  And I found myself struck once again by a clear example of ingenuity and serendipity working together in remarkable ways.  Then, too, I was reminded of the often subtle, behind-the-scenes role women appear to have played in the innovation process throughout history. 

Mr. Booth - British Inventor:

A century ago (actually, 101 years, to be exact), and reportedly quite by chance, H. Cecil Booth, dropped by the Empire Music Hall in London.  There he happened to witness a demonstration of an (American) invention that cleaned carpets by forced air blasting dust and dirt (mostly) into a collection box.  Booth saw the mess the device made of the surrounding area, and pondered about the advantage a suction action might have. 

Later, while still contemplating his suction concept for dust removal, Booth had dinner at a local restaurant.  He found himself, again by chance, seated in a plush chair. According to historian/author Charles Panati (ref. 1), Mr. Booth later wrote that he suddenly decided to test his concept by pressing his lips against the chair and sucking the fabric.  Says Panati, "He choked violently on dust but was inspired." 

After many hours lying on his floor at home, sucking dust with various types of fabrics against his lips Booth found the ideal filter material and proceeded to procure a patent (probably British) in 1901.  The machine was huge, requiring two people to manipulate, and was used principally by the very wealthy.  Historians Bunch and Hellemans (ref. 2) reported that Booth's early vacuum machines were used in Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. 

To develop a smaller, workable machine that would be the forerunner of today's portable vacuum, would take another coupling of serendipity and the imagination of an American department store janitor.  Bringing the inventor's dream to reality would take the vision of a housewife/entrepreneur.

James Spangler - American Inventor:

Only 6 years after Booth had patented his massive carpet cleaning vacuum, James Spangler was hired by a department store in Canton, Ohio and was randomly assigned to maintain the massive rug department.  As it happened, Spangler was severely allergic to dust, so this posed an exceptional challenge to the older Mr. Spangler.  Rather than being discouraged, Spangler was motivated. 

With an old electric fan, a wooden box sealed with strips of tape, and an old pillowcase, Spangler found himself well on his way to the creation of the first easily portable vacuum.  By 1908 he secured a US Patent and with borrowed money from friends formed the Electric Suction Sweeper Co.  Sales were slow.  So, James Spangler took his devices door to door for demonstrations. 

It just so happened that at one elegant home, the front door was opened, not by the butler as would normally be the case, but by the lady of the house, herself.  So taken was she by this wonderful new household appliance that she packed it up and took it, along with Mr. Spangler, to her husband's (leather goods and auto parts) manufacturing company.  It was there that Mrs. Susan Hoover influenced the beginning of a very profitable American industry.  And a poor department store janitor became the supervisor of production.

Hope this is helpful to Julie's class.  For more detailed reading see * below. Good luck.

Don

Donald Grant Kelly
Director, Independent Inventor Programs
Office of the Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks
Washington, DC 20231

          *  Ref 1:  Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday
Things;
                        Harper & Row; 1987
                  Ref 2:  The Timetables of Technology; Bunch & Hellemans;
                        Touchstone; 1994

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Don Bergquist, Cleveland OH offered the following:

Vacuum Cleaner http://www.ideafinder.com/facts/story/story042.htm

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Jeffrey Frommelt offered:

http://www.reed.edu/~karl/vacuum/

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Pal Asija offered the following humorous comment:

Most inventors ideas come from vacuum, but Hoovers went into the vacuum.
With best regards from your
pal@ourpal.com 

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Rodney offered:

The History channel had a show on this,, there were many so called vacuum
cleaners patented, some were hand operated and not very useful, the first one
that was really what we today call the vacuum cleaner was invented by, you
guessed it,,,  Mr. Hover.  You might check their web site for more details

http://www.hoovercompany.com/education/index.htm/

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