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Vacuum cleaner (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

There is nothing I like more than an engineer with the courage of his or her convictions.

In 1900 the English engineer Cecil Booth startled diners in a London restaurant when suddenly he rose from his upholstered chair, placed a piece of damp fabric on its arm, and began sucking. When done he looked at the resulting black ring of dirt on the fabric with great satisfaction - despite his coughing and choking. Booth was trying to prove to himself that suction - a vacuum - was the best way to remove dirt.

He got the idea at a London train station where he saw a machine used to clean railway carriages. The machine used a huge blower to move the dirt from one end to the other, and hopefully out the door. Booth realized that the opposite process - a vacuum - was needed, and he knew that getting out the dirt was a nineteenth century obsession.

In that time cleaning was an "aggressive art" - housewives used salt, cornmeal, even shredded cabbage to draw out the dirt, then attacked it with a broom or carpet beater. In 1901 he marketed "Booth's Original Vacuum Cleaner Pumps" also known as "Puffing Billies."

They were massive bright red machines. The vacuum power came from an engine so large the unit was moved about on a horse-drawn cart. Booth's team of white-coated operators cleaned carpets, curtains, and upholstery, running hoses from the pump in the street into London stores, hotels, and houses - but only houses of the wealthy because the vacuum was so expensive.

So novel was the work that sometimes the homeowners held tea parties so their friends could see the vacuum cleaner at work. Booth got great publicity for his machine when he cleaned the great blue carpet at Westminster Abbey after Edward the Seventh's coronation. He removed an "immense" amount of dirt impressing the heads of Germany, Russia, and France - all who then wanted a vacuum cleaner. Yet Booth's machine was still too expensive for everyday use. What it needed was a small electric motor, something not in existence in England at the time, but was just appearing in America.

A poor American inventor turned janitor with a hacking cough needed a way to get rid of dust. This man, James Murray Spangler, developed an electrically driven portable machine to suck up dust. In addition to suction Spangler added a rotating brush driven by the motor, and some pillowcases to collect the dirt.

Without enough money to develop the machine he sold it to his cousin's husband - William Hoover. Booth and Spangler brought engineering genius to the vacuum cleaner, but Hoover and his son added that essential element to success: sales.

The son became the firm's key salesman. He recalls "I would stock up a hardware store with cleaners, go out two months later and find none of them moved. I would get busy and demonstrate them to housewives and move the stock. Quite unwittingly, I stumbled on the fact that specialty demonstrations were the correct way to sell vacuum cleaners.".

The Hoover's eventually sold thousand nationally with the jingle: "All the dirt, all the grit / Hoover gets it, every bit." Although no longer using jingles, Hoover's company still dominates the vacuum cleaner market.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises