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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 better, using a wonderful mixture of whatever came to hand – a broom, a leather belt, a pillowcase, an electric motor culled from an old ceiling fan, a rotating brush cannibalised from a broken carpet sweeper, an old soap box.  

He played around with a contraption which had the distinct advantage of being portable and upright – essentially making a motorised version of the old Daniel Hess idea. It also added the idea of a motorised brush which could loosen the dirt before it was sucked up.   It worked, sucking up the dirt and blowing it back into the pillowcase which he emptied from time to time.  It’s perhaps not entirely fanciful to think he had made a connection between the early crop harvesting equipment he’d designed and this new idea.

Excited at the possibilities he developed and improved on various prototypes and in 1908 was awarded US patent number 1073301 for his ‘Electric Suction Carpet Sweeper’.  He borrowed money, persuaded friends to invest and began trying to make the machines but to no avail – he couldn’t raise enough to set up manufacturing and was only able to make three machines a week, even with the help of his son and wife.  It looked like he was about to fail again – but fortunately he’d given a test version of his machine to his cousin, Susan.  She was delighted with its performance, enthusiastically telling her husband about this great new machine.  Which is how it came about that William Hoover branched out from the leather goods business and into the world of vacuum cleaners, buying Spangler’s patent in 1908 and beginning to build the business which was to make his name and fortune.   

What Hoover brought to the party – apart from money – was a lot more business acumen.  Unlike Spangler Hoover was an experienced salesman and realised that their first model – the Model O – was wonderful but also pretty expensive, selling for $60.  He needed to grow the market and fast if he was to succeed – and he did so by a variety of novel marketing approaches.  He pioneered the use of door-to-door salesmen working on commission who would demonstrate and help diffuse the new product.  And he took space in the Saturday Evening Post newspaper offering  a free ten day trial for anyone who requested it.  He built a network of local retailers to help deliver on this (and capture the sales which followed). 

It worked; by the end pf 1908 he’d sold 372 Model Os and four years later the product was being sold around the world.  Ten years after its launch the market of vacuum cleaners in the USA was for over half a million machines; by 1920 it exceeded one million and kept on growing.  By 1941 over 100 million units had been shipped from Hoover and his major competitors in the USA alone.

The Hoover effectively became the dominant design for the sector, inspiring many imitators but he was able to sustain his strong market presence through a robust business model and continuing innovation.  He improved on Spangler’s original design, adding many new features including a steel case, casters and – borrowing from experiences elsewhere, the range of fittings and attachments which would make the Hoover such a versatile workhorse.  (Importantly Spangler was able to see his brainchild grow and to help with tis development in the early years, contributing several of the ideas and additional patents to the Hoover machine until his death in 1915).  Close attention to the way in which the product was used led to developments like disposable bags and the ‘beater bar’ in 1919 which famously ‘beats as it sweeps as it cleans’, an advertising strapline still popular fifty years later.

Innovation tends to follow a pattern of occasional radical step change followed by long periods of improvement, of polishing, getting the bugs out of the system, learning to do what we do a little better.  The early ‘fluid’ phase in which many entrepreneurs cluster, each offering a new take on the emerging possibilities gives way to a ‘dominant design; which lays down the tracks along which the industry will develop for a sustained period.  That was certainly the case in this industry; many new players entered the rapidly growing market and drove down the price, improved the quality and offered a number of variations ion the core them – the hand held vacuum cleaner, the pull-along model, machines with various kinds of air filtration and so on.

But innovation is also a pattern of ‘punctuated equilibrium’; every so often a mature marketplace characterised by gentle tides of improvement is suddenly stirred up by something significantly new.  In October 2000 the air inside Court 58 of the Royal Courts of Justice in London rang with terms like ‘bagless dust collection’, ‘cyclone technology’, ‘triple vortex’ and ‘dual cyclone’ as one of the most bitter of patent battles in recent years was brought to a conclusion. On one side was Hoover, with its eponymous vacuum suction sweeper at the heart of a consumer appliance empire.

On the other a lone inventor – James Dyson – who had pioneered a new approach to the humble task of house cleaning and then seen his efforts threatened by an apparent imitation by Hoover. Eventually the court ruled in Dyson’s favour.

This represented the culmination of a long and difficult journey which began in 1979 (seventy years after Mr Spangler’s moment of frustration in his Ohio department store.  Dyson was using, ironically, a Hoover Junior vacuum cleaner to clean his house during some renovation work. He was struck by the inefficiency of a system, which effectively reduced its capability to suck the more it was used since the bag became clogged with dust. He tried various improvements such as a finer mesh filter bag but the results were not promising. The breakthrough came with the idea of using industrial cyclone technology applied in a new way – to the problem of domestic cleaners.

Dyson was already an inventor with a track record and one of his products was a wheelbarrow which used a ball instead of a front wheel. This was painted black using a powder-coating process which generates a lot of dust which needs to be extracted quickly.  To do so the company used a cyclone – a well-established engineering solution to the problem of dust extraction. Essentially a mini-tornado is created within a shell and the air in the vortex moves so fast that particles of dust are forced to the edge where they can be collected whilst clean air moves to the centre. Dyson began to ask why the principle could not be applied in vacuum cleaners – and soon found out. His early experiments – with the Hoover – were not entirely successful but eventually he applied for a patent in 1980 for a vacuum cleaning appliance using cyclone technology.

It took another four years and 5127 prototypes and even then he could not patent the application of a single cyclone since that would only represent an improvement on an existing and proven technology. He had to develop a dual cyclone system which used the first to separate out large items of domestic refuse – cigarette ends, dog hairs, cornflakes, etc. – and the second to pick up the finer dust particles. But having proved the technology he found a distinct cold shoulder on the part of the existing vacuum cleaner industry represented by firms like Hoover, Philips and Electrolux. In typical examples of the ‘not-invented-here’ effect they remained committed to the idea of vacuum cleaners using bags and were unhappy with bagless technology. (This is not entirely surprising since suppliers such as Electrolux made a significant income on selling the replacement bags for its vacuum cleaners.)

Finally, in 1993 – 14 years after the initial idea –  he launched the product and it quickly grew to be a success, technically and commercially.  Dyson now runs a design-driven business employing over 12000 people, a presence in 70 countries and with a turnover in 2019 of over $5bn.  The lion’s share still comes from his range of vacuum cleaners and he had the satisfaction in 2004 of overtaking Hoover in terms of US sales.

That’s not the end of our vacuum cleaner story, although it does bring us up to date.  Despite an innovation history that goes back at least two hundred years there’s still scope for change.  Predictions are that the market for household floor cleaning devices (currently worth around $10bn per year) will grow by 10% a year for the next decade.  And there will be newcomers; already we’ve seen widespread adoption of first generation vacuum-cleaning robots and these are likely to become cheaper and more sophisticated elements in smart homes of the future. 

Most of us would be happy to see the task of sweeping up finally out of our hands – especially if the robots could also do something about the infernal noise vacuum cleaners make!  But it’s worth sparing one more moment to reflect that even the most mundane household chore can carry with it some valuable lessons for learning to manage innovation more effectively.

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