Hubert Cecil Booth would probably been fascinated by my old Dirt Devil hand vacuum cleaner. Booth is responsible for the first powered cleaning machine that moved and retained dirt. For a very short time, Booth’s powered vacuum cleaner was the only one in existence.
Hubert Booth was born in Paris on July 4, 1871, then moved with his family, two months later, to Gloucster, England. Following his primary education, Booth completed his studies in civil engineering and mechanical engineering at London’s Central Technical College.
In 1892, Booth was hired as a draftsman/engineer for the company of Maudslay Sons & Field where he designed bridges and large ferris wheels. Two years later, Booth oversaw work on the ferris wheel at Earl’s Court in London. Later that decade, he designed wheels for Blackpool, England, Paris, and Vienna.
In 1901, Booth observed a demonstration of a vacuum device that redistributed dust from chairs. The machine was the latest in a long line of various vacuum cleaners that removed dust from floors and other surfaces. The problem with them was that all the machines only moved the dirt from one place and moved it to another, usually in the air. The machine Booth saw that day did the same thing.
On his way home after the demonstration, Booth brainstormed and wondered why vacuum cleaners didn’t capture the dust instead of merely moving it around. When he got home, he tested a hunch that a vacuum cleaner should suck air through a filter. Booth held a handkerchief across his mouth and sucked the dusty surface of a table. Eureka! Dirt stuck to the handkerchief and didn’t enter his mouth.
Booth went right to work on his idea. He came up with a large, machine that was powered by an internal combustion engine that captured dirt by filtering incoming air via the powered pump. Booth dubbed the machine “Puffing Billy”.
Because the vacuum machine was so large, it was installed in a four-wheeled, horse drawn carriage. Long cleaning hoses were used to bring the suction power from the street to the building that needed cleaning. Booth soon formed the British Vacuum Cleaner Company to market his services.
Due to the fact that most homes were not wired for electricity, the cleaning service was a godsend for those who could afford the fees. Booth’s vacuum cleaner was so unique, that some society mavens threw parties to show off the fact that their carpets were being mechanically cleaned. For such displays, transparent hoses were used so that party guests could observe dirt whooshing from the surface towards the vacuum pump, outdoors.
Booth’s reputation had grown so much that his machines were commissioned to clean the blue carpets in Westminster Abbey for the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII.
His successes inspired plenty of copycats, so Booth spent the next two decades defending the vacuum cleaner patent from infringement claims. He did manage to win every challenge in court.
As could be expected, other inventors improved upon Booth’s idea and patented their own machines. As time went on, vacuum cleaners became smaller, more powerful and portable.
Before he died, Booth authored a short book The Origin of the Vacuum Cleaner. It recapped Booth’s work on the Puffing Billy.