The Invention and History of the Vacuum Cleaner

Man vacuuming rug at front entrance of home
Sidekick / Getty Images

By definition, a vacuum cleaner (also called a vacuum or hoover or a sweeper) is a device that uses an air pump to create a partial vacuum to suck up dust and dirt, usually from floors.

That said, the first attempts to provide a mechanical solution to floor cleaning began in England in 1599. Before vacuum cleaners, rugs were cleaned by hanging them over a wall or line and hitting them repeatedly with a carpet beater to pound out as much dirt as possible.

On June 8, 1869, Chicago inventor Ives McGaffey patented a "sweeping machine." While this was the first patent for a device that cleaned rugs, it was not a motorized vacuum cleaner. McGaffey called his machine — a wood and canvas contraption — the Whirlwind. Today it is known as the first hand-pumped vacuum cleaner in the United States.

John Thurman

John Thurman invented a gasoline-powered vacuum cleaner in 1899 and some historians consider it the first motorized vacuum cleaner. Thurman's machine was patented on October 3, 1899 (patent #634,042). Soon after, he started a horse-drawn vacuum system with door to door service in St Louis. His vacuuming services were priced at $4 per visit in 1903.

Hubert Cecil Booth

British engineer Hubert Cecil Booth patented a motorized vacuum cleaner on August 30, 1901. Booth's machine took the form of a large, horse-drawn, petrol-driven unit, which was parked outside the building to be cleaned with long hoses being fed through the windows. Booth first demonstrated his vacuuming device in a restaurant that same year and showed how well it can suck dirt.

More Americans inventors would later introduce variations of the same cleaning-by-suction type contraptions. For example, Corinne Dufour invented a device that sucked dust into a wet sponge and David Kenney designed a huge machine that was installed in a cellar and connected to a network of pipes leading to each room of a house. Of course, these early versions of vacuum cleaners were bulky, noisy, smelly and commercially unsuccessful.

James Spangler

In 1907, James Spangler, a janitor in a Canton, Ohio department store, deduced that the carpet sweeper he was using was the source of his chronic coughing. So Spangler tinkered with an old fan motor and attached it to a soap box stapled to a broom handle. Adding in a pillowcase as a dust collector, Spangler invented a new portable and electric vacuum cleaner. He then improved his basic model, the first to use both a cloth filter bag and cleaning attachments. He received a patent in 1908.

Hoover Vacuum Cleaners

Spangler soon formed the Electric Suction Sweeper Company. One of his first buyers was his cousin, whose husband William Hoover became the founder and president of the Hoover Company, a vacuum cleaner manufacturer. James Spangler eventually sold his patent rights to William Hoover and continued to design for the company.

Hoover went on to finance additional improvements to Spangler's vacuum cleaner. The finished Hoover design resembled a bagpipe attached to a cake box, but it worked. The company produced the first commercial bag-on-a-stick upright vacuum cleaner. And while initial sales were sluggish, they were given a kick by Hoover's innovative 10-day, free home trial. Eventually, there was a Hoover vacuum cleaner in nearly every home. By 1919, Hoover cleaners were widely manufactured complete with the "beater bar" to establish the time-honored slogan: "It beats as it sweeps as it cleans".

Filter Bags

The Air-way Sanitizor Company, which began in Toledo, Ohio in 1920, introduced a new product called the "filter fiber" disposable bag, the first disposable paper dust bag for vacuum cleaners. Air-Way also created the first 2-motor upright vacuum as well as the first "power nozzle" vacuum cleaner. Air-Way was the first to use a seal on the dirt bag and first to use a HEPA filter on a vacuum cleaner, according to the company's website. 

Dyson Vacuum Cleaners

Inventor James Dyson invented the G-force Vacuum cleaner in 1983. It was the first bagless dual cyclone machine. After failing to sell his invention to manufacturers, Dyson created his own company and began marketing the Dyson Dual Cyclone, which quickly became the fastest-selling vacuum cleaner ever made in the UK.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "The Invention and History of the Vacuum Cleaner." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). The Invention and History of the Vacuum Cleaner. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The Invention and History of the Vacuum Cleaner." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).