The common vacuum cleaner has simplified the work of cleaning a house, but if you think it’s a modern invention, think again. Early attempts at automating floor-cleaning chores date back to Elizabethan England. When a workable vacuum finally surfaced in 1869, its name, the Whirlwind, could have been a misnomer. It is true that the wood-and-canvas contrivance did free women from the exhausting chore of beating their rugs by hand. Unfortunately, its operation required the efforts of two people, one of whom did a lot of pumping.
Using a manually pumped vacuum was almost as hard as beating a rug. There had to be a better way, and by 1899, inventor John Thurmond believed that he had found one. His model, which ran on gasoline, may have been the world’s first truly automatic vacuum cleaner. Thurmond spent the early 1900s delivering his cleaning services right to the doorsteps of homeowners around St. Louis, Mo.
The British inventor Hubert Cecil Booth followed shortly after with his own gasoline-powered device. The size of a small truck, his version had wheels on the bottom and shafts in the front, allowing a horse to draw the machine to any worksite. Long hoses that snaked through the windows did the actual vacuuming. Booth was the first to use the term “vacuum cleaner.”
These early vacuums had three things in common with many modern gas-powered devices: They were noisy, dirty and smelly.
While Thurmond and Booth were busy delivering portable vacuuming services to their clients, an American inventor named David Kenney had his own ideas. Believing that a vacuum meant for indoor cleaning should stay indoors, he designed a steam-powered machine that could reside permanently in a building’s cellar. A network of pipes that attached to the device ran to every room, providing a centralized cleaning system.
By 1907, James Spangler had perfected a smaller vacuum cleaner for residential use. Powered by electricity, it not only improved upon the large, dirty gas models: It was also the first to provide special attachments to draw the suctioned dirt into a cloth bag. Spangler eventually sold his patent to William Henry Hoover, whose name appears on vacuums to this day.
Since many homes in the early 1900s lacked electrical power, hand-operated vacuums remained commonplace. While most of these manual models relied on a plunger mechanism, others required the combined efforts of two people for their operation. Both types consumed a considerable amount of human energy. Fortunately, by the 1920s, the majority of homes possessed electricity, rendering the manual models obsolete.
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