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Vacuum Cleaners: A Night Janitor’s Claim to Glory
Housecleaning just isn’t complete without a thorough vacuuming. Check out our study of the history of the invention that made it possible.
To clean a carpet today, it doesn’t take much more than plugging in a vacuum cleaner and flipping the switch. In the most basic design, a rotating brush sweeps dust and debris from the floor as an electric fan forces air through the intake port and out through a filtered exhaust port—a self-contained vacuum that traps the debris inside a bag. Beyond that basic design, vacuum cleaning continues to evolve, resulting in everything from bagless canisters to automatic robots that leave you free to spend your time building sandcastles on the carpet.
For centuries, though, the only way to clean a rug was to take it out to the yard and beat it. To spare rugs from sunburn, rudimentary versions of the vacuum cleaner began to spring up in the mid-1800s. The first, technically a carpet sweeper, used bellows to produce suction, and the second undercut its added convenience—it was handheld—by powering its fan with a hand crank. In 1901, British inventor Hubert Cecil Booth patented a suction cleaner that could filter air and trap dust, but its internal combustion engine was so large it had to sit on a horse-drawn wagon—hardly a way to make chores easier.
As inventors seeking fame and fortune raced to improve upon Booth’s design, a night janitor in Ohio had a problem of his own. Faced with crippling asthma, James Murray Spangler set out to trap the squalls of dust that erupted whenever he swept the carpet. His rude assembly—electric motor, tin soapbox, fan, pillowcase, and broom handle—became the first viable handheld vacuum, and Spangler sold the patent in 1908 to a businessman who would soon become a household name—Hoover.