A Biography on Hubert Cecil Booth and His Influence on Cleaning

Herbert Cecil Booth, a British inventor of the late 19th and early 20th century, has influenced the way that millions of people keep their floors clean. In 1901, he first conceived the idea for a powered vacuum cleaner, which could remove dust and other particles to assist in cleaning. In the same year that Walt Disney was born, King Camp Gillete patented the safety razor, and Australia became a country, the vacuum cleaner was born. His invention, which he called the “Puffing Billy,” went on to influence the array of models you can find in the shops today.

Booth was born in Gloucester, England, to a lumber merchant. As a young man, he enrolled in the City and Guilds College in London, where he studied mechanical and civil engineering. Upon graduation, Booth focused on working with engines. This period of his work coincided with the advent of the Ferris wheel, and some of Booth’s early work was related to the massive engines used to create the stunning attractions.

One day, Booth was watching a demonstration at the Empire Music Hall, in which an inventor demonstrated a new device that could blow air at high pressure to remove dust. Booth asked the man why he didn’t try sucking the air instead of blowing it, but the inventor dismissed the idea as impossible. Later, at St. Pancras rail station in London, Booth’s interest was again piqued by a mechanical aspirator, which was being used to clean railcars. Booth noticed that the machine was relatively inefficient, again using pressurized air to blow away dust particles, but failing to remove those dust particles completely.

Booth set his mind to devising a more efficient means of removing dust. He supposed that using suction instead of blowing air would be more effective in removing particles. To try out his theory, he famously placed a handkerchief on the upholstered seat beside him at a swanky London restaurant while dining with friends. Booth lowered his mouth to the handkerchief and sucked on it. He inhaled enough dust to make him begin coughing, and the underside of the handkerchief was lined with a thick coating of dust: evidence that his idea was worth pursuing. Booth’s first vacuum cleaner used a suction pump, a flexible tube, and a filter: many of the same basic components used in modern vacuum cleaners.

To manufacture and sell his invention, Booth established the British Vacuum Cleaner Company. His company enjoyed such success that within a year of establishing themselves, the British royal family requested a vacuum to clean the carpeting of Westminster Abbey to prepare for the coronation ceremony of 1902.

As the vacuum cleaner became increasingly well known, homeowners tried to keep their homes to a new level of cleanliness. Clients of the vacuum service included nobility from throughout Europe and members of the European aristocracy. Initially, the British Vacuum Cleaner Company operated a car-like vacuum trolley, which the company would drive through the street to the clients’ residence. Using long tubing, the vacuum could be snaked into all the corners of the client’s home, with the unit itself remaining in the street, outside. Eventually, with the development and spread of electricity, portable models were designed to work to be plugged in, at individual homes, such as the company’s ‘Goblin’ brand, launched in the 1920s.

Prior to Booth’s invention, it was necessary to take large carpets outside of the home to beat them. Vigorous beating was necessary to remove debris from within the fibers of the carpet. With the advent of the vacuum, this basic “spring cleaning” ritual become far more simplified. In addition, it was possible to vacuum regularly, instead of just once a year.

Other inventors, such as William H. Hoover of Canton, Ohio, also developed vacuum cleaners in the years directly following Herbert Cecil Booth’s first prototype. Within just fifty years, the incredible sucking machine would become a standard appliance in homes around the world. Today, the basic suction-based mechanism has been extended for a wide array of purposes, from home and industrial vacuum cleaners to applications on coral reefs, in electronics factories, and beyond.