British inventor Herbert Cecil Booth (1871-1955) is credited with inventing the first vacuum cleaner, which he demonstrated to a royal audience at Buckingham Palace in 1901.
Despite the advances in technology made during the Industrial Revolution, everyday life during the nineteenth century still held its discomforts. Despite the increase in cheap, machine-made goods that allowed even the middle classes to own carved and upholstered furniture, fringed brocade draperies, and attractively-patterned woven rugs, the methods for keeping it all clean—wiping dust from furniture; shaking dust and lint from textiles; sweeping floors, stairs, and wall surfaces; and dragging heavy rugs outside to beat the dirt out of them— proved to only move dirt and dust from one surface to another. The non-stop effort required to keep up the appearance of a clean home proved daunting to many housewives, who spent hours on hands and knees scrubbing dirt-covered floors or brushing rugs. For wealthier families, the prospect of spring cleaning required them to actually leave their home for several days, while servants tore the house apart in search of dirt. Soot from coal fires, ash from wood stoves, dust, and dirt, not to mention microorganisms: these were the source of many a housewife and cleaning woman's frustration. While floor wax had been in use since 1870—a development of a Wisconsin flooring manufacturer named Samuel Curtis Johnson—as a way of protecting wood surfaces from the abrasion created by dirt, it did little to remove dirt from flooring surfaces. And the increasing use of electric light was quick to shine a harsh light on the growing problem.
Herbert Cecil Booth was among those canny minds who set to work addressing the practical problems of daily living. Like others before him, he sought to end the frustration of keeping a clean house. While housewives continued to arm themselves with brooms, whisks, dustpans, and carpet sweepers—a rolling box invented by Michigan native Melvin Bissell that swept dirt from carpets using rotating cylindrical brushes—Booth and others realized there must be a better way.
Born in Glouchester, England in 1871, Booth was one of six sons born to lumber merchant Abraham Booth. Upon reaching adulthood, Booth moved to London and enrolled at the City and Guilds College where he studied civil and mechanical engineering. His first job after college graduation was at the firm of Maudsley Son and Field, which was known throughout England for its engines. Booth's obvious talent for all things mechanical soon caught the eye of others, and he eventually left Maudsley Son to join a firm that designed and built huge wheels along the lines of those developed by American engineer G. W. G. Ferris in the early 1890s. The Ferris Wheel, rotated by a steam-driven engine and providing horizontal seating around its rim, was causing a stir at fairgrounds across Great Britain.
As a man, Booth was not directly involved in the problem of accumulated dust and dirt. In fact, if he had not chanced upon a demonstration of an American invention he would likely have never entered the fray. However, during one day in 1901, he happened to be inside the Empire Music Hall when his interest was captured by a demonstration of a mechanical aspirator, or cleaning machine. The machine—developed by a St. Louis, Missouri railway worker to clean rail cars—consisted of a motor, a hose attachment, and a large box, into which pressurized air focused through jets blew dust and other debris. While the machine certainly stirred up dust, it ultimately proved ineffective in collecting and removing it. Booth asked the man demonstrating the machine whether suction rather than pressure wouldn't work better. The demonstrator indignantly replied that suction had been tried on numerous occasions but didn't work.
Several types of pressurized aspirators were already in use when Booth first witnessed the cleaning machine demonstration at the Empire. One such type required two operators: one to operate a suction-creating bellows mechanism and the other to move the suction tube across the surface to be cleaned of debris. Ives W. McGaffey had patented one primitive version of this manual floor cleaner as early as 1869. Another early invention used manpower as well, the operator being required to turn a crank, which in turn caused pulleys to set into motion a cleaning apparatus, which in turn did little or nothing to remove dirt. More imaginative was the Teeterboard, a teeter-totter-like contraption that required one person to generate suction by rocking while another positioned the cleaning nozzle.
Booth's mind quickly went to work on the problem. Several days later, while discussing his thoughts on the subject during a dinner with friends at a London restaurant, he attempted to illustrate his idea by unfolding his handkerchief, placing it on the plush velvet seat of his chair, placing his lips upon the handkerchief, and inhaling. Witnessing their friend choking on the quantity of dust he had managed to draw out from the chair, Booth's friends also witnessed an invention in the making.
Booth patented his new invention, dubbed the Puffing Billy, that same year. Consisting of a suction pump attached to a hollow implement, the contraption also included a flexible tube open at one end and connected to an impurity collector that served as a filter. Although the machine's description might bring to mind the twentieth-century canister vacuum, the suction pump in Booth's original Puffing Billy was so large and cumbersome that it was necessary to transport it from house to house in a horse-drawn cart. Its size was due to the fact that many houses in London were not yet wired for electricity, requiring the machine's power source to be either coal or oil. The machine's gasoline-powered generator had to be powerful and hence large— and loud. Because of its size, the bright red Puffing Billy remained outside the home to be cleaned atop its cart, attached to a hose measuring 82 feet in length. As electricity gained in popularity, Booth went to work and developed a portable version of his contraption in 1906.
Founding the British Vacuum Cleaner Company to market his new invention, Booth decided that operating it in front of an audience would result in sales. He approached a local restaurateur with his proposal to clean the dining room for free, and it was accepted. News of Booth's new contraption quickly reached the palace, and one of Booth's very first jobs was to clean the carpet running down the center aisle of Westminister Abbey in preparation for the coronation of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1902. A cleaning machine was eventually installed in Buckingham Palace, while another one was brought to Windsor Castle. With the cost of each machine the equivalent of thousands of dollars, Booth's company earned profits by hiring out its cleaning services on a subscription basis, allowing uniformed vacuum operators to make regularly scheduled cleaning runs through the city. For 13 pounds—the annual wages of a scullery maid—a home could now be thoroughly cleaned.
Booth's bright red Puffing Billy, hauled through the streets by its dapper operators, transformed the Edwardian home. The removal of years of accumulated dust from rugs, draperies, and furnishings established a new standard of cleanliness. In fact, hiring Booth's machine soon became a status symbol among fashionable households, and the lady of the house would even host vacuum tea parties to entertain her friends while the white-coated Puffing Billy staff invaded her home with their hoses and Booth's invention roared on the street outside. Booth's list of clients grew to include Wilhelm II of Germany, Nicholas II of Russia, the House of Commons, and numerous department stores and homes in the wealthy sections of London.
In addition to homes, Booth and his machine were called into service for less typical jobs. During World War I fifteen Puffing Billys and their staff were dispatched to vacuum the huge iron girders of London's Crystal Palace, a huge, glass-walled public building that had been built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Requisitioned for use as a naval barracks, the building released over 26 tons of dust, accumulated in mounds over six inches high over the sixty years it had been standing.
The success of the Puffing Billy proved mixed for its inventor. His company was the recipient of numerous fines for illegal parking, having earned the ire of customer's neighbors who were irritated by the noise of Booth's machine and cabdrivers tired of having to calm frightened horses. He also spent the next two decades defending his patent from the infringement claims of dozens of other inventors who previously registered vacuum cleaner models. In every court battle, he ultimately won; his design was the only configuration of suction, filter, and collection box that actually trapped and captured dust and dirt.
As might be expected, the quest to perfect the vacuum cleaner went on, leaving Booth and his invention ultimately in the shadows. A woman named Corinne Doufour developed a device that sucked dust into a wet sponge—the first filtered vacuum system. David E. Kennedy elaborated on Booth's idea, as well as the innovations of a Missouri railroad worker, and created a mechanical monster: a machine that was installed in the basement with connections to each room via a sequence of pipes, rather like forced hot air heating systems are today. Even with the success of the suction-cleaning method, others still persisted in finding a powerless way to clean, among them the inventor of 1917's Success Hand Pump, which involved an accordion and a hefty supply of arm strength in its so-called powerless cleaning process.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, other minds were hard at work on the problem of accumulated dust. The firm of Chapman and Skinner developed a portable suction cleaner a year before Booth completed his own model. A Canton, Ohio, janitor with asthma named James Murray Spangler patented his own device in 1908. Featuring a suction system similar to Booth's, Spangler's machine incorporated rotating brushes powered by a small electric motor attached to a wood and tin frame, used an old pillowcase as a dust collector, and was pushed around using a broom handle. Small and lightweight—the 0 model weighed in at only 40 pounds-Spangler's upright design proved to be practical as well. Calling his company the Electric Suction Sweeper Company, Spangler went into business with his cousin, a saddle and harness manufacturer named William H. Hoover, and began producing their product— redesigned in aluminum and including wheels—in 1907. The result of their ability to mass-produce Spangler's design and their continued improvements resulted in a machine that bears Hoover's name even today.
Advances in vacuum-type cleaners continued. Air Way began marketing the first disposable paper filter in 1920. In 1921 Swedish inventor Axel Wenner-Gren opened the Electrolux Company to sell a canister vacuum that incorporated sled-like runners to allow it to be dragged rather than pushed across the floor. Rexair marketed the first bagless cleaner in 1936. While innovative, the Rexair cleaner was also expensive due to its hydro-technology, and by 1974 Electrolux had become the largest manufacturer of vacuum cleaners in the world.
Later in his life, Booth wrote a short book titled The Origin of the Vacuum Cleaner, which recounted his development of the first suction cleaner. He died in Croyden, England, on January 14, 1955, at the age of eighty-four.
de Vries, Leonard, Victorian Inventions, J. Murray, 1991.
Furnival, Jane, Suck, Don't Blow: The Gripping Story of the Vacuum Cleaner and Other Labor-saving Machines, Michael O'Mara, 1998.
Ireland, Norma Olin, Index to Scientists of the World from Ancient to Modern Times, F. W. Faxon, 1962.
Dictionary of National Biography, 1951-1960, edited by E. T. Williams and Helen M. Palmer, Oxford University Press, 1971.
Antiques and Collecting, June, 1996.
Newcomen Society Transactions, Vol. 15, 1934-35.