February 18, 2011

Happy Birthday to the Vacuum Cleaner

On this day in 1901, Hubert Cecil Booth received a patent on a machine that really sucked. Until that time, all carpet cleaners that cleaned using the vacuum principle were hand-powered, which made them difficult to operate. Apparently it's not incredibly easy to turn a hand crank while pushing a bulky machine across the floor. Who knew?

An American named John Thurman created a carpet “renovator” that cleaned by blowing dust into a receptacle. This sounds a bit like a leaf blower, and I imagine quite a bit of the dust that was blown out of the carpet floated a while in the air and ended up settling back into the carpet long after the machine and its receptacle had moved on.

British engineer H. Cecil Booth saw Thurman's dust-blower machine in operation and decided it made much more sense to suck dirt up rather than just blowing it around.

So, Booth had a great idea. What's the next step?


Booth tested his idea by placing a cloth handkerchief onto a restaurant chair—and then using his mouth to provide suction! The test worked—a lot of dust and dirt collected on the underside of the handkerchief. (I know, yuck.)

Booth went on to invent a horse-drawn vacuum cleaner that was driven by an oil engine. It had no brushes, just hoses and nozzles. Uniformed operators would drive up in bright red horse-drawn vans, unreel a length of hose, and put the hose through a window of a building. Once the vacuum cleaner was turned on, air was sucked up through the nozzle and hose and over cloth filters. The operators would use the cleaner to vacuum all the rooms of the building.

Booth's vacuum cleaner, called the “Puffing Billy,” sounds big, noisy, and possibly stinky, but the British crown gave Booth a prestigious job: cleaning the carpets of Westminster Abbey before Edward VII's coronation. Booth's company succeeded even after Hoover won over the household vacuum market (an old-time ad is pictured here, right)—because Booth's vacuum got bigger and more powerful for the industrial market, cleaning even factories and warehouses. (Of course, there were many changes made to the original “Puffing Billy,” including the use of an electric motor rather than an oil engine.)

I have never seen a large street vac, have you?

Celebrate by vacuuming your carpets and upholstery!

What is a vacuum?

A vacuum is a volume of space that is pretty much empty of matter. A perfect vacuum would have zero particles, but this cannot be created in practice and, even though space between the stars and especially space between the galaxies is a higher-quality vacuum than any humans can create, there are still some particles there.

(Even if we could somehow get rid of every single particle in a chunk of space, it still wouldn't be empty, thanks to vacuum fluctuation: particles would pop in and out of existence! Weird, huh? But that's quantum physics for you!)

A vacuum chamber
A vacuum cleaner works by creating suction by reducing air pressure just a bit—just 20% or so. Other uses require lower air pressure. One of the earliest uses of vacuum is inside the incandescent light bulb. Vacuum is also used inside thermos bottles, electron microscopes, vacuum tubes, and cathode ray tubes. Today we use vacuum chambers for electron beam welding, vacuum packing, manufacturing adhesives, metallurgy, and other scientific and industrial processes.

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