The trusty vacuum cleaner has long been a staple in any home storage closet. But a century ago, it was considered cutting edge technology.
Wednesday’s Google Doodle celebrates the 147th birthday of Hubert Cecil Booth, the brains behind one of the the first powered vacuum cleaners — a product that fundamentally changed home cleaning.
In 1901, cleaning machines blew air to push away debris. Booth was struck by the possibility of the inverse method: suction to remove the dirt. Inspired by a demonstration of a machine blowing dirt out of railway cars, the British engineer tested his new idea by putting his handkerchief to his mouth and sucking the air through it, to see how much dust he could remove. From there, he set out on his first design called the “Puffing Billy.”
But operating the Puffing Billy was quite a spectacle, as it required experts (and horses) to pull the petrol-powered engine outside a home from where it would suck out the dirt from long hoses. In 1903, Booth launched the British Vacuum Cleaner Company and created a smaller electric-powered device. Despite noise complaints, the machine was embraced by the elite and even the British royal family. Booth’s device was even used to clean the carpets at Westminster Abbey ahead of Edward VII’s coronation.
Booth set out on an engineering path early on. Born in 1871, the Gloucester-native entered the City and Guilds Institute in London in 1889 for a three-year course in civil engineering and mechanical engineering. Booth lent his mind to other engineering products too. He helped build bridges, designed engines for Royal Navy battleships, and Ferris wheels across Europe in England, France, and Austria. But his most enduring design would be a household cleaning device that, albeit is far smaller now, changed the way homes are maintained.
Wednesday’s animated Doodle depicts an operator cleaning a carpet using the Puffing Billy, with the engine housed in the company’s iconic red horse-drawn van parked outside.