How One Janitor Cleaned the World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some inventions are meant to suck.
By Sean Braswell
James Murray Spangler’s cough was getting worse. For a few years, the 48-year-old former salesman, hobbyist inventor and father of three had been working as a janitor at Zollinger’s Department Store in Canton, Ohio, to help make ends meet. It was an unpleasant, menial job for a creative tinkerer used to toying with farm equipment and velocipedes, and Spangler suspected that the ocean of dusty carpet he had to sweep at the store was the reason his asthma was becoming almost intolerable.
So, in 1907, Spangler took matters into his own hands, and with an electric fan, a soapbox, a broom handle and one of his wife’s pillowcases, the janitor happened upon a solution to his medical, and financial, condition. Spangler’s “suction sweeper” — the precursor to the modern domestic vacuum cleaner — would revolutionize how Americans cleaned their homes, and kick start what is nearly a $15 billion industry today.
For centuries, the broom had been the domestic cleaning implement of choice, but in the late 19th century, a series of inventors started circling around a device to replace the tiring, time-consuming tool. Most of these early “carpet sweepers” dislodged dust by using compressed air to blow it off surfaces and into a receptacle — that is, until an English engineer named Hubert Cecil Booth put his mouth to an old handkerchief over a London couch and … inhaled. The film of dust that collected on the other side of the cloth affirmed Booth’s intuition that sucking, not blowing, was the way forward. By the turn of the century, Booth’s industrial “vacuum cleaner,” a bulky, gas-powered machine that required horses to transport it, would suck up the dust at establishments across London, including Buckingham Palace and the Crystal Palace.
Thereafter the race to develop a smaller, more versatile vacuum cleaner was afoot, but, as Carroll Gantz, a former head of industrial design at Hoover, chronicles in The Vacuum Cleaner: A History, no one before Murray Spangler had succeeded in creating an effective portable vacuum cleaner that could be used in non-industrial settings. “Spangler’s invention was special,” Gantz tells OZY, “because it was powered by electricity, and because it was smaller, lighter (due to a smaller motor) and easier to operate than its competitors.”
Fortunately, Spangler’s small but very satisfied set of early adopters included Mrs. William H. Hoover.
Spangler’s initial prototype, which used an electronic motor to power a fan and rotating brush inside a soapbox, sucked up dirt and dust and deposited it in an attached dust bag (the pillowcase). The suction sweeper worked well on Zollinger’s vast carpets and Spangler’s asthma improved. He applied for a patent and, after raising money from early investors (including the department store owners), he quit his janitorial job to open the Electric Suction Sweeper Company.
The entrepreneur worked hard to refine his new contraption, but he soon found sales lagging and his capital running out. By mid-1908 — with his health starting to fail alongside his new company — it seemed the upstart cleaner had reached the end of his cord. Fortunately, Spangler’s small but very satisfied set of early adopters included Mrs. William H. Hoover, his first cousin and the wife of a prominent leather goods manufacturer. After purchasing the strange contraption, Mrs. Hoover had been teased by her husband and three sons, her eldest son, Herb, joking, “Mother! You’ve been taken to the cleaners by the cleaners!”
But when the burgeoning automobile industry threatened sales of the W.H. Hoover Company’s signature leather harnesses, horse collars and saddles, “Boss” Hoover recognized that his business needed a new direction. And after hearing glowing reviews of Spangler’s machine from his wife and others, Hoover quickly moved to acquire the struggling outfit, leaving Spangler as a superintendent holding generous royalties.
“Without Hoover,” says Gantz, “[Spangler’s] business would have failed.” And what started as a one-room operation with a staff of 20 in Hoover’s leather goods factory would, thanks to Hoover’s innovative marketing and in-home demonstrations, convert Spangler’s invention into the market leader, and even turn “hoover” into a verb synonymous with his new product line. As historian Nancy Tomes describes in The Gospel of Germs, the public’s growing awareness of disease-causing microorganisms and “dust dangers” further popularized the vacuum cleaner, which was “hailed … as a great hygienic boon because it sucked up dangerous dirt so much more safely and thoroughly than did traditional carpet sweepers.”
As for the ex-janitor James Murray Spangler, his health continued to fail and he witnessed only the start of the household revolution his cough helped spark. Seven months after his death in 1915, Spangler’s last patent was assigned to the W.H. Hoover Company, and his role in the vacuum cleaner’s creation largely consigned to the dustbin of history.