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The history of the vacuum and how it changed over time

The vacuum has become such a normal part of our everyday lives, but have you ever wondered how it came to be so? While it may seem like a cumbersome chore, vacuuming has taken a lot of the work out of cleaning, and made it a lot more efficient. Let’s take a look at this often overlooked household object.

What do you think of when you think of housework? You probably imagine loading the washing machine, hanging out the laundry, doing the dishes—or hoovering.  Many of the basic tools used for cleaning throughout history would still be familiar to us today, from cloths to brooms, brushes and buckets. But more recently, technological solutions to household dust and dirt—like the vacuum cleaner—have altered our expectations of what ‘clean’ really means. In vacuum design, dirt is collected by either a dustbag or a cyclone for later disposal. Vacuum cleaners, which are used in homes as well as in industry, exist in a variety of sizes and models—small battery-powered hand-held devices, wheeled canister models for home use, domestic central vacuum cleaners, huge stationary industrial appliances that can handle several hundred litres of dust before being emptied, and self-propelled vacuum trucks for recovery of large spills or removal of contaminated soil. Specialized shop vacuums can be used to suck up both dust and liquids.

The Invention of the Vacuum

Before what we now know as a vacuum was invented, there were manual vacuums that at the time, were still major inventions. In 1860 a manual vacuum cleaner was invented by Daniel Hess of West Union, Iowa. Called a ‘carpet sweeper’, It gathered dust with a rotating brush and had a bellows for generating suction. Another early model (1869) was the “Whirlwind”, invented in Chicago in 1868 by Ives W. McGaffey. The bulky device worked with a belt driven fan cranked by hand that made it awkward to operate, although it was commercially marketed with mixed success.  A similar model was constructed by Melville R. Bissellof Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1876, who also manufactured carpet sweepers. The company later added portable vacuum cleaners to its line of cleaning tools.

The end of the 19th century saw the introduction of powered cleaners, although early types used some variation of blowing air to clean instead of suction. The interesting reality of this invention is that there really isn’t one inventor. It is a product that is a result of an iterative process over time with advances in technology moving it forward, and constant improvement making it more efficient. By the late 19th century, new innovations made this dream possible. Gasoline, for instance, emerged as a source of fuel in 1892. One appeared in 1898 when John S. Thurman of St. Louis, Missouri submitted a patent (U.S. No. 634,042) for a “pneumatic carpet renovator” which blew dust into a receptacle. Thurman’s system, powered by an internal combustion engine, traveled to the customers residence on a horse-drawn wagon as part of a door to door cleaning service. Corrine Dufour of Savannah, Georgia received two patents in 1899 and 1900 for another blown air system that seems to have featured the first use of an electric motor.

Engineer Hubert Cecil Booth was rolling his new vacuum cleaner onto the wealthier streets of town. First employed by Maudslay, Sons and Field in Lambeth in the 1890s, at the time he was better known for designing suspension bridges and fairground Ferris wheels (including Vienna’s famous Riesenrad). But in 1901 he turned his skill to carpet cleaning after witnessing the demonstration of a new machine at London’s Empire Music Hall. He realised that the machine on display had a fatal flaw. It was designed to blow out air in the hope of raising the dust from the carpet and into the collecting bag. The inventor told him that the method Booth suggested instead—sucking up the dirt through a filter—was impossible.  One story goes that an unnamed inventor in London was at a trade show, boasting that his particular gas-powered carpet cleaner was the latest and greatest, when he was approached by the English structural engineer Booth. According to a 1935 article Booth wrote about this incident many years after the fact, the inventor was apoplectic when Booth questioned him as to why the machine didn’t suck in dust rather than expel it. “He became heated, remarking that sucking out dust was impossible,” Booth would write. After allegedly near-fatal tests—in which he choked after putting a handkerchief ‘filter’ over his mouth and sucking up dust from the arm of a chair—Booth formed the British Vacuum Cleaner Company and launched his new device. This was the huge beast of a machine seen doing the rounds of wealthy Londoners’ homes at the start of the 20th century. 

Then, after much social transformation, the vacuum began becoming accessible to the masses.  Asthmatic American inventor James Spangler sold his idea for an electric broomstick-like cleaner—with cloth filter and dust-collection bag attached to the long handle—to William Hoover in 1908, as a result of being unable to produce the design himself due to lack of funding. His invention proved to be arguably the first truly practicable domestic vacuum cleaner. What made Spangler’s machine different, was that it was upright and portable. “It used a ceiling fan motor and paddle blades to create the air flow… he used a leather belt and journaled it to a rotating brush that he had gotten out of a carpet sweeper… No one was able to get the carpet that clean because they didn’t have a motor driven brush.”

 

Their first vacuum was the 1908 Model O, which sold for $60. Subsequent innovations included the beater bar in 1919 (“It beats as it sweeps as it cleans”), disposal filter bags in the 1920s, and an upright vacuum cleaner in 1926. Although, before this there was an iteration of a portable vacuum cleaner, that just didn’t have the same commercial success. The first vacuum-cleaning device to be portable and marketed at the domestic market was built in 1905 by Walter Griffiths, a manufacturer in Birmingham, England.  His Griffith’s Improved Vacuum Apparatus for Removing Dust from Carpets resembled modern-day cleaners; – it was portable, easy to store, and powered by “any one person (such as the ordinary domestic servant)”, who would have the task of compressing a bellows-like contraption to suck up dust through a removable, flexible pipe, to which a variety of shaped nozzles could be attached. 

In Continental Europe, the Fisker and Nielsen company in Denmark was the first to sell vacuum cleaners in 1910. The design weighed just 17.5 kg (39 lb) and could be operated by a single person. The Swedish company Electrolux launched their Model V in 1921 with the innovation of being able to lie on the floor on two thin metal runners.  In the 1930s the Germany company Vorwerk started marketing vacuum cleaners of their own design which they sold through direct sales. For many years after their introduction, vacuum cleaners remained a luxury item, but after the Second World War, they became common among the middle classes. Vacuums tend to be more common in Western countries because in most other parts of the world, wall-to-wall carpeting is uncommon and homes have tile or hardwood floors, which are easily swept, wiped or mopped manually without power assist. The last decades of the 20th century saw the more widespread use of technologies developed earlier, including filterless cyclonic dirt separation, central vacuum systems and rechargeable hand-held vacuums. In addition, miniaturized computer technology and improved batteries allowed the development of a new type of machine – the autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner. In 1997 Electrolux of Sweden demonstrated the Electrolux Trilobite, the first autonomous cordless robotic vacuum cleaner on the BBC-TV program Tomorrow’s World, introducing it to the consumer market in 2001.

The Current Vacuum 

Vacuum cleaners are products of the Industrial Revolution in every way. They appeared as a solution to a problem that the revolution caused, but they could not be possible without it. In the years since Hoover acquired Spangler’s patents, there have been a few helpful improvements that have bettered the vacuuming experience. They’ve gotten cleaner, thanks to the introduction of less porous cloth bags in the 1930s and the modern-day HEPA filters and bags. Vacuums have gotten smaller and more portable, culminating in Black and Decker’s 1975 cordless vacuum patent and the 1978 introduction of the Dustbuster. They’ve become more stylish and cooler, with Dyson’s 1991 “G-Force”, a $2,000 status symbol of a cleaning device. Then, of course, there was Roomba, making its creeping debut in 2002 and taking vacuuming into the robotics age. There have been advances, but it also seems there is a consensus amongst experts that vacuum cleaners were maybe even better in the beginning than they are now. 

In the 1970’s the vacuum cleaner got its biggest facelift with the electronically controlled suction and power of 1000 watts. Since the early years, many more exciting improvements have been made. For instance, the Dyson Cyclone was created by James Dyson in 1985. This model, as well as many following models, used no bags. Instead, there was a detachable canister into which the dirt and debris was contained. Clean air is expelled through a series of filters and the canisters can be cleaned when they get full. So, there have been advancements that have made them safer and easier to use lighter weight, and sleeker. 

8 of the Best Vacuums on The Market

1.Dyson V11 Animal

For most people, great cordless vacuum cleaners are now strong enough to replace plug-in vacuums. But cordless vacs cost more, they don’t last as long, and unless you spring for a really high-end model, they may not have enough run time to clean big homes in a single pass. All that said, cordless vacuums make it so easy to clean that you may just be fine with those tradeoffs. They’re especially life-changing if you live in an apartment or smaller house with a cramped floor plan, because they’re so thin and light and easy to steer, and there’s no cord to get caught on any corners. And even in bigger homes, you may find that you get used to cleaning just a few rooms at a time, so that battery life isn’t such a big deal. The best cordless models are strong enough to clean as well or nearly as well as plug-ins, even on most types of rugs. Most cordless vacuums also double as handheld vacuums now, so you can buy one vacuum to clean your floors and your car. If you want a cordless vacuum that fully replaces a plug-in, a high-end Dyson is as close as it gets. The Dyson V11 is actually better than lots of plug-in vacuums at cleaning rugs. Owners love the auto-adjusting suction.

Dyson V11 Torque Drive Cordless Vacuum Cleaner, Blue

2. Roomba

The Roomba did mark a major invention in the world of vacuums, as it was the first fully automated device: a mini robot. On the market beginning in 2002, the Roomba is a product of the firm iRobot, founded in Burlington, Mass., in 1990 by MIT roboticists Colin Angle, Helen Greiner and Rodney Brooks. They don’t clean rugs as deeply as traditional vacuums do, and they never navigate perfectly (though some are getting pretty close). But they can keep your floors tidy, with very little effort and oversight on your part. They’re particularly advantageous for pet owners, but most people are pleasantly surprised by how much stuff robot vacuums manage to pick up. Some simple but effective robot models are about the same price as good traditional vacuums. Meanwhile, higher-end models add advanced features like targeted area- or room-specific cleaning, or even a self-emptying feature.

iRobot Roomba i3+ EVO (3550) Self-Emptying Robot Vacuum – Now Clean By Room With Smart Mapping, Empties Itself For Up To 60 Days, Works With Alexa, Ideal For Pet Hair, Carpets​

3. The Shark Navigator

The Shark Navigator Lift-Away is a bagless upright vacuum. Its ‘Lift-Away’ design allows you to pick up and carry its canister while vacuuming with its wand. It delivers superb performance on bare floors and does an excellent overall job cleaning various kinds of debris on low and high-pile carpet. It also cleans pet hair without any issue, regardless of surface type, and has an onboard allergen-trapping HEPA filter. However, its bulky design can make it hard to maneuver in tight spaces, and its plastic construction feels a little flimsy in some places. While it incurs virtually no recurring costs, there are a few different parts that need regular cleaning. Rosenzweig founded the company in Montreal in 1995 with help from his parents. It has sought to build upon its brands over the last decade, extending its Shark vacuum business and its Ninja kitchen appliance business to include one-pot cookers as well as blenders.

Shark NV360 Navigator Lift-Away Deluxe Upright Vacuum with Large Dust Cup Capacity, HEPA Filter, Swivel Steering, Upholstery Tool & Crevice Tool, Blue

4. Miele Complete C3

Miele is a German manufacturer of high-end domestic appliances and commercial equipment, headquartered in Gütersloh, Ostwestfalen-Lippe. The company was founded in 1899 by Carl Miele and Reinhard Zinkann, and it has always been a family-owned and run company. The Complete C3 is a bagged vacuum (they trap dust and dander better than bagless vacs), and the C3 is one of the tightest-sealed machines out there. This model comes standard with a HEPA filter. This one is a little more high-end, in the $600 range, which may affect your decision. One online review says: “ I never thought a design of a vacuum could change so much the use of it. Miele is exeptionally convenient and solid to use. All main attachments lock in, small attachments are always within the vacuum so you will never lose them. All the parts cna be carried with one hand.” So, it seems like it can be really worth the investment. 

Miele Complete C3 Calima Canister Vacuum-Corded, Curry Yellow

5. Bissell Crosswave

BISSELL is an American manufacturer of vacuum cleaners and floor care appliances. They offer a diverse selection of vacuum cleaners, ranging from compact handheld cordless vacuums to bulky corded uprights and everything in between. Most of their offerings are somewhat budget-friendly and use bagless designs, meaning that recurring costs tend to be pretty low. That said, quite a few of their more compact offerings struggle with clearing bulky debris, while their bigger corded uprights generally feel somewhat cheap. The BISSELL CrossWave Pet Pro is an upright hybrid mop vacuum. It does a great job sucking up solid debris on bare floors and is quite effective in clearing stains. It also feels decently well-built, isn’t especially noisy, and is fairly easy to maneuver and store. A trigger on the back of the vacuum’s handle releases the cleaning solution, and the machine’s 36V lithium-ion battery provides 30 minutes of cordless cleaning power. Two-Tank Technology keeps clean and dirty water separate, so only clean water and formula are dispensed onto surfaces. Having tried various vacuum cleaners, both expensive and inexpensive, corded and cordless, and upright and canister, as well as several types of hard-floor cleaning devices, I felt that the CrossWave offered the perfect all-in-one combination.

BISSELL, 2554A CrossWave Cordless Max All in One Wet-Dry Vacuum Cleaner and Mop for Hard Floors and Area Rugs, Black/Pearl White with Electric Blue Accents

6. Hoover WindTunnel 3

Having a good vac can make all the difference in removing fine dust and dirt. An effective vacuum cleaner can even speed up the cleaning process. Hoover is one of the most popular brands in North America, and its vacuums are durable, reliable, and versatile. Today, the name Hoover is synonymous with vacuum cleaners — literally. Hoover was founded in 1907 by Murray Spangler, an inventor who also worked as a janitor. He was searching for a solution to his asthma and finally tried his luck with a tin soapbox, a fan, a broom handle and a pillowcase.The vacuum features a filter that can be removed and washed when needed. The MAXLife system enables them to retain great suction performance even without filter maintenance. This makes it an excellent choice for families dealing with allergies. Hoover has also incorporated its WindTunnel technology for extra power. It channels the powerful suction to remove even the toughest dirt. Nonetheless, the extra large 2.5 liter dust bin capacity is a game-changer. 

Hoover WindTunnel 3 Max Performance Pet, Bagless Upright Vacuum Cleaner, HEPA Media Filtration, For Carpet and Hard Floor, UH72625, Red

7. Tineco Pure One

The Tineco PURE ONE X is a cordless stick vacuum. Its built-in dirt sensor allows it to change its suction power level on the fly depending on the kind of debris it sucks up, and it also comes with a relatively wide assortment of tools. It clears pet hair without issue on various kinds of surfaces and has an allergen-trapping HEPA filter. However, while it also does a fantastic job clearing debris on bare floors, its performance on carpets is mediocre. You also can’t remove its battery, reducing long-term longevity, and it has quite a few parts that need regular cleaning. Tineco was founded in 1998 with the invention of its first vacuum cleaner, Tineco gained hundreds of domestic and international patents and generated impressive sales globally. On March 13, 2019, Tineco launched the first-ever smart vacuum cleaner, becoming an industry pioneer. The Tineco PURE ONE X is an excellent choice for pet owners. It does a fantastic job of cleaning pet hair on a wide variety of surface types. It also has an allergen-trapping HEPA filter. The brushrolls for both floorheads and its turbo brush are easily removable, allowing you to clear any tangled hair wraps with minimal effort. However, while it incurs minimal recurring costs, it does have quite a few parts that need regular cleaning.

Tineco Pure ONE S12 PRO EX Smart Cordless Stick Vacuum Cleaner, Optimized Ultra Powerful Suction & Long Runtimes, Excellent for Multi-Surface & Pet Hair Cleaning with LED Hard Floor

8. Black and Decker Max Lithium Pivot

Handheld vacuums can go where bigger vacuums can’t. They make it easy to ferret out crumbs from between couch cushions, or dirt from under car seats. This cordless handheld vacuum’s distinctive pivoting nozzle and powerful suction make short work of tidying up around the home or in the car. The Black+Decker 20V Max Lithium Pivot BDH2000PL has more suction than any other cordless handheld vacuum. It easily picks up cereal, dust, sand, and other common messes quickly, and it’s strong enough to pick up pet hair without special tools. The strong suction makes up for the Pivot’s 10 minutes of no-fade run time, which is below average—with the extra cleaning power, that run time should be just enough for you to tidy up the interior of a three-row minivan or SUV. The pivoting nozzle makes getting into crevices, such as in between car seats, a lot easier than with a traditional Dustbuster. Reviewers especially like the all-in-one design, with no attachments to lose.

BLACK+DECKER 20V Max Handheld Vacuum, Cordless, Grey (BDH2000PL)

 

The vacuum is a modern invention, arising out of the conditions of the Industrial Revolution, but having many different iterations and patents over time. Ultimately, it has become an object we take for granted as commonplace, but it took a lot of inventive design to be brought into the world.