The Dirt on Vacuums

The Dirt on Vacuums

Sonia Zjawinski
Apr 21, 2008

Bragging about your Dirt Devil goes hand in hand with drooling over two-ply toilet paper, in other words, it never happens. Appliances tend to get the shaft, hiding in pantries or closets until they're needed, but take a good hard look at what makes up your average cleaner and you'll find one of the most successful concepts in industrial design.

With the new, more compact, Dyson Ball, heading to stores this month we thought we'd give you some history on vacuum design...

In 1907, after realizing his sweeper was making him wheeze, department store janitor James Murray Spangler used an old pillowcase to collect gunk and -- voilá! -- he invented the cloth filter bag.

Photo: VacHunter

While the materials that make up the sack have changed, the concept has stayed the same: trap and contain dust bunnies. Many companies claim it's the best way to dispose of debris since the crap you just spent an hour cleaning can't escape when you dump it.

Anal retentives, though, argue that as dirt is collected it clogs the cloth's pores, restricting airflow and causing a loss of suction power. The same goes for bagless systems that use small filters to catch scum, which is why James Dyson engineered an appliance that ditches fabric and uses seven plastic cyclones to spin air at a rate of 100,000 Gs, propelling large and microscopic particles to the side of the built-in bin. No bag, no filter, just centrifugal force -- sahweet!

Photo: Dyson

Though this NASA-like system keeps suction power at its peak, those with allergies might not appreciate the disposal process. Hold the canister over a trashcan, press a button to drop out its bottom and watch as all the grime comes pouring out and possibly flying back into the air *cough* *cough*. Tip: Before dumping, cinch a garbage bag around the canister so there aren't any openings for debris to escape from. Post dump, wait a minute or two for the dust to settle before removing the canister. Slowly and carefully tie up the bag.

If you dare look at what you've collected, 75-80 percent of what you'd find are dead skin cells, with dirt, dust mites, and hair taking up the rest. Despite your shedding dominating the vac bag, hair can be a serious pet peeve since follicles and fur doesn't just passively lie on furniture; it nestles in and gets comfortable. Your standard vacuum brush is great for picking up follicles from hardwood, tile or cold war-style linoleum floors, but try to sweep them off lampshades, rugs, or the couch and you'll end up picking each strand off yourself.

Thank god the Hoover Company introduced the Model O in 1908, the first sucker with cleaning attachments.

Photo: American Heritage

Typically, if you have a detachable hose you'll also get standard tools like an upholstery piece that agitates the fabric on sofas and drapes to help pick up molted coats, a crevice utensil to slip into tight spaces, and a hose-extension for reaching that dusty chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

When cleaning your carpet you might think the row of bristles under your vacuum's carpet attachment are there to comb through a rug's fibers and pull dirt up into the hose. In actuality, air's the main hero, forcing its way through the textile to loosen dirt before it's sucked in. The brush simply shakes up any stubborn soil. A manual pile-height adjustment, found as a slider button atop the carpet attachment, allows you to match the brush height with the type of rug you have, so bristles don't penetrate too deep and possibly damage your shag. Isn't that thoughtful?

By now you've noticed that a vacuum's entire build is one that's been carefully drawn out. There isn't a single item in its construction that doesn't have a purpose. You might see it as a banal necessity that only reminds you of chores that need to be done, but that appliance in your closet, invented a century ago, is one of the most impressive and unrelenting productions to come out of the turn of the century. And with each iteration a new innovation and convenience is discovered.

The last innovation was Dyson's Ball, which this month comes in a more compact version, which may make AT New Yorkers happy. While traditional suckers have four fixed-wheels that run on an axle making it hard to move in any direction but straight, the Dyson Ball replaces wheels with an actual ball, that looks a lot like those exercise balls you see at the gym. The ball lets the machine pivot in almost any direction with a simple flick of the wrist. No more lifting your vacuum to get it in the right direction. What will they think of next?

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