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Sweeping the floor with innovation

When did you last use your Spangler?  That’s a question designed to stop most people in their tracks and likely to be met by mystified faces or uncomprehending stares.  It’s a great one to throw out at quizzes or to floor a class of students who think they’ve seen it all already.

(You can find a podcast version of this story here)

The simple answer is that the Spangler might have become the generic term for a device almost all of us have and use in our homes – the vacuum cleaner.  Useful fact of the day – Mr J. Murray Spangler invented and patented the ‘electric vacuum suction sweeper’ in 1907.  Unfortunately, despite his hard work in bringing the device into the world he wasn’t able to sell enough of them to prevent his running out of money.  He was forced to sell the idea to William Hoover, a leather goods maker who also happened to be married to Spangler’s cousin, Susan.  The rest – at least as far as establishing such a strong brand that the name comes to define the product – is history.  William Hoover’s name lives on as a widely used alternative verb for vacuuming the floor.

But cleaning floors is a much older innovation story – in fact one which dates back to the beginnings of civilised life.  After all, even when we lived in caves it made sense to sweep the floors clear of dust and dirt otherwise it would have a nasty habit of getting into our food, between our teeth and generally making a nuisance of itself.  Archaeologists date the broom – a simple cleaning tool which probably originated with a few leaves tied to a stick – back at least as far as 2300BC.  But it wasn’t until 1797 that Massachusetts farmer Levi Dickenson noticed the struggle which his wife was having trying to keep the floors of their farm clean that things moved significantly forward. 

He experimented – a typical farmer innovation approach – with various constructions and eventually came up with broom made from sorghum, a particularly stiff grain which grows tall like corn and had the right properties – stiff, strong and didn’t fall apart.  Dickenson made a few more brooms for friends and neighbours and received a lot of positive feedback.  within three years the whole family, wife and three sons were employed along with anyone else they could drag in making and selling hundreds of brooms right across new England, by 1850 the new application for the grain led to its begin rechristened broomcorn.

The other big problem with sweeping – apart from the broom – is having to do it.  It’s hard work, dusty and gritty.  So, anything which might help mechanise the process and make it a bit easier would be sure to find a market.  At least that’s what occurred to Daniel Hess back in 1860.  This inventor from Iowa changed the carpet sweeping game by developing a mechanical carpet sweeper.  At least, he drew the idea for one though no-one is sure whether he actually built the thing.  It was cumbersome but the principle was interesting; as he explained’ …the nature of my invention consists in drawing fine dust and dirt through the machine by means of a draft of air’  Sounds quite close to our vacuum cleaner concept but in Hess’s case it was manually operated, with the user working a pair of bellows to create the suction.  Somewhat limiting the advantage since it replaced one form of work with another…

But Hess’s idea sparked others, notably Ives McCaffey of Chicago whose design, launched in 1869 used a fan instead of bellows to move the air, and his machine stood upright taking some of the effort out of otherwise back-breaking work.  He was also a bit smarter in the marketing area than Hess, focusing on the user experience rather than the device itself.  As he put it in his patent application ‘the accumulation of dust and dirt in dwelling houses is a source of great annoyance to all good housekeepers…to obviate these difficulties is the object of my invention’. 

Unfortunately, the machine – which he christened the ‘Whirlwind’  – didn’t really take off.  It was expensive selling for $25 (around $450 in today’s money) and since the user still had to work a hand crank to drive the fan harder to use than a simple broom.

Elsewhere other inventors began playing with the idea of improving on the broom rather than replacing it.  In Britain a number of inventors went after the commercial market, patenting ingenious devices for road sweeping which could also be adapted for home use.  The operating principles were simple, based on pulleys and cranks worked by hand which rotated a brush to push dirt into a receptacle.  One Hiram Herrick of Boston patented a ‘carpet sweeper’ in 1858 (though it’s often argued that he actually reinvented this from a British patent). The big idea in all of these was combining a rolling brush with a dustpan.

But it was in Grand Rapids, Michigan that the next big step came with Melville Bissell’s machine which he patented in 1876.  His wife Anna possibly deserves the credit for the initial invention; she was fed up with being the one having to clean the carpet in their shop at the end of the day.  They sold crockery and used sawdust to help package the plates and cups to prevent breakages; unfortunately, this found its way on to the floor and into the carpet where it we=as a real pain to remove with a traditional broom.  She had words with Melville who went on to build her a carpet sweeper, based on a wooden box with wheels with brushes on their axles.  As the dirt is swept up it is collected into the box – a system which worked well enough to attract the interest of friends and neighbours.  Pretty soon Melville and Anna were spending all their spare time making and selling the ‘Grand Rapids’ sweeper which he had thoughtfully patented.  It turned out to be a good move since a wave of imitators tried to enter this growing market; they successfully defended them and built their first factory manufacturing sweepers under the Bissell name in 1883; the business is still making sweepers and still owned by the Bissell family.

Although a great improvement the Bissell sweeper was still effectively manually operated. An advance on the broom but still with its limitations.  Other inventors were looking to try and develop a powered machine – something which new power sources were beginning to make a distinct possibility.  One example was John Thurman’s Pneumatic Carpet Renovator which he developed in St Louis in 1898.  This used a gasoline engine which produced a powerful blast of air – not so much sucking as blowing the dirt into a bag.  The idea was interesting and the results reasonably effective, but it was something less than a portable device, coming in the form of a big machine towed around on a horse-drawn carriage.  He charged $4 per visit for the service; its limitations included being very loud and also having the unfortunate side effect of scaring the horses!

A similar approach was taken by British inventor Hubert Booth who was an experienced engineer working with the Royal Navy.  He adapted the idea behind Thurman’s machine and improved on it by using the engine to create a vacuum which would essentially suck up the dirt.  His ‘Puffing Billy’, a big red gasoline powered wagon pulled by horses was often to be seen parked outside the large houses in Victorian London with hoses snaking inside through the doors and windows extracting dust and dirt and leaving the rooms pristine.  His skills in marketing the service led to some high-profile commissions; for example, in 1902 he won the contract to clean Westminster Abbey ready for the coronation of King Edward 7th and Queen Alexandra.  The royal couple were so impressed that they bought Booth machines for both Windsor castle and Buckingham Palace.     

Booth’s design worked well but was big; one solution adopted by wealthy families with large houses was to install a variant on the Puffing Bill as a central vacuum unit at the heart of the house which could be connected to when staff wanted to clean individual rooms.  This opened up a market in big buildings like hotels and offices – but left the mainstream domestic market untouched.

This was too attractive a market to leave alone but hard to crack.  A British inventor, Walter Griffiths came up with a portable vacuum cleaner in 1905.  His ‘Improved vacuum apparatus for removing dust from carpets’ was a big step forward in terms of portability and easy storage.  But for power it depended again on bellows power – back to Daniel Hess – though it did have the interesting idea of having various different tools and attachments to help dislodge dirt.

It’s at this point that our friend Mr Spangler comes on the scene.  In 1907 he was working as a janitor in an Ohio department store having had a chequered career.  He’d always been something of an inventor, certainly not afraid to experiment.  In his earlier days he’d developed and patented a useful device for helping with harvesting grain in 1889, adding a variety of improvements to make it adjustable to different grain heights.  And he’d patented other ideas – a multi-function hay rake and a velocipede wagon – a form of bicycle powered cart.,  But none of these ideas had made him much  money which is how he found himself, aged 60 sweeping the floor in Hollinger’s department store after the customers had gone home.

His chest had never been good; he was asthmatic and the last thing he needed was a job which involved swirling up lots of dust as he pushed the company’s old floor sweeping machine around.  So he set about trying to improvise something bet