Inventions Ahead of Their Time: The Vacuum Cleaner
CREDIT: glasseyes view, via Flickr
If a stick qualifies as an invention, then carpet cleaners have been around virtually forever. Even today, in many countries, people prefer to clean floor rugs by beating the living daylights out of them. Such a straightforward, cathartic solution can be difficult to replace, but by the 1950s sticks were for dogs and every modern American family owned a vacuum cleaner. However, by then, vacuum cleaners were already 90 years old.
Contrary to popular belief, vacuum cleaners were not invented by a man named Hoover. In 1860 , when William Hoover was only 11 years old, an inventor from Iowa named Daniel Hess filed a patent for a machine called a carpet sweeper. As he described it in the application, Hess's invention consisted "in drawing fine dust and dirt through the machine by means of a draft of air," making it the first sweeper to capture dirt with suction.
Once sequestered, the dirty air passed through two chambers filled with water that filtered out the dirtor, as Hess dramatically phrased it "for the purpose of destroying it substantially." Hess solved the problem of how to remove and contain dirt rather than simply shuffle it around. But his machine would have taken a lot of energy to use. In order to create suction, an operator would have had to hand-pump a bellows. This could explain why his invention never found a market.
For the next 50 years, inventors tried to solve this problem , searching for an effortless way to generate suction. It's a timeline of creative failures, according to an account in the Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology, by Lance Day and Ian McNeil.
In 1901, a British man named Hubert Cecil Booth hatched a strategy so farcical as to be brilliant. Booth solved the energy demands of his invention by creating suction with a gasoline-powered motor. The resulting machine was very powerful, but also very biga monster nicknamed "Puffing Billy" that cleaned houses while parked in a horse cart on the street. Massive tubes extended from the buggy and slithered into windows to feed on the dirty carpets and curtains within. Those who could afford it literally reveled in the scene, throwing vacuum parties that revolved around the spectacle of elaborate cleaning.
For most of the world, keeping tidy remained a banal chore , and vacuum cleaners were but a curious sideshow. But in 1908, William Hoover bought the rights to a portable, upright vacuum, patented by his in-law, James Murray Spangler. Hoover's company took the machine door-to-door and cemented his family name into the American psyche.
By the 1920's, vacuum cleaners looked more like pets than monsters and in the decades that followed they've continued to evolve in hyper-speed. First they got headlights. Then they stood up. Now they move around by themselves and take commands. The expectations are high indeed for a machine that once only had to suck and be good at it.
This article is part of an ongoing series about inventions that arrived before the public was ready to accept them. You can read the rest of the series here.