The Most Famous Inventor You've Never Heard Of: Hubert Cecil Booth and 10 Fantastic Things He Created

... Credit :
Jane Taylor in World News

Last updated: 21 January 2020, 05:01 GMT

In school, we're taught about the most famous inventors and their creations and now we can rattle off a few of them along with their most famous ideas brought to life.

But what about the lesser-known inventors? One of them is Hubert Cecil Booth and you probably don't even realize how he's shaped modern-day society and all of our lives.

Who Was Hubert Cecil Booth?

Why don't we know his name? In school, we're taught about brilliant minds who developed significant inventions that touch our lives, even today. Some of those inventors and their credits include:

  • Benjamin Franklin—bifocal glasses, potbelly stoves, and the lightning rod
  • Thomas Edison—the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb
  • Alexander Graham Bell—the telephone
  • George Washington Carver—developed 300 uses for peanuts
  • Nikola Tesla—the AC electrical system, Tesla induction motor, and coil
  • Eli Whitney—the cotton gin
  • Wright Brothers—first flight in an airplane
  • Henry Ford—the assembly line
  • Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—mass-market computers

Missing from this list of well-known inventors is Hubert Cecil Booth. Born in 1871 to a lumber merchant in Gloucester, England, Booth was one of six boys in the family. Wanting out of the smaller town, he moved to London as an adult to go to university. He enrolled in the civil and mechanical engineering program at City and Guilds College.

Successfully completing his first engineering program, he landed a job with an already famous engineering firm known throughout England for employing the leading engineers in the field. Making inroads in his field, he was later pursued and left the firm to go to another firm led by an American engineer. There, he studied and eventually helped create his first big invention.

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Hubert Cecil Booth's Inventions

Like many great minds, we credit Booth with the invention of more than one creation. His fingerprint is on many things we take for granted today.

The Ferris Wheel and Suspension Bridge

The second firm Booth joined was led by an American engineer, G. W. G. Ferris. America was trying to develop something to rival the grandeur of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The lure of that landmark had brought people in with the promise of being able to stand atop a city and see a panoramic view below.

Ferris's company was working on large rotating wheels with booths to hold riders so they could get a bird's-eye view of the landscape below them. With Booth's talent helping the progress of what we know now as the Ferris Wheel, they would make a working version and roll it out at the World's Fair in Chicago. The wheel held 36 individual cars, each able to hold 60 people and became all the rage at amusement parks across Europe and America.

Booth got a taste of how his engineering prowess could be put to practical use and solve modern issues. He wasn't stopping at the Ferris Wheel.

While facts are few and far between for Booth's contribution to the suspension bridge, he gets credit for its invention in several publications. Because the first suspension bridge was put into use in the early 1800s, we can only assume his contribution to the invention actually lies in improving the bridges he built in Burma, India and South Africa. He also helped develop railway bridges for companies in Britain.


The Vacuum Cleaner

If you know a thing or two about the history of the vacuum cleaner, you may attribute its invention to Hoover, but it was Hubert Cecil Booth who conceptualized and produced what revolutionized the way we clean floors today.

The Idea Is Born

Booth was present when an American company demonstrated their invention intended to make cleaning passenger railway cars easier and more efficient. The contraption comprised an air pump and to illustrate its effectiveness, they showed how it could blow away visible dust. Booth observed that it did nothing more than blow the dust around and disperse it somewhere else in the car.

Seeing how this blower did nothing to get rid of dust, Booth was obsessed with a way to remove debris and dirt as opposed to just blowing it around. As he tossed ideas around, he came up with what would later turn into the first vacuum cleaner.

Filters and Reversed Air

He understood what the inventors of that first air blower were going for and how far they had missed the mark. Booth ruminated that if a filter was placed just before the pump and the air was reversed from blowing to sucking, an actual solution for dust and debris could be born. Colleagues and friends not understanding his vision are said to have had a front-row seat to his idea in motion one night over dinner.

In a restaurant, to show the vision he had, Booth placed a cloth napkin over his mouth and began to suck up dust and debris from a chair in the establishment. He turned the napkin over and both he and his companions saw how much dust had accumulated on the makeshift filter. He now knew how workable his idea was.

The First Vacuum

Booth went hard to work on his machine that would eventually revolutionize the way we do housework. His first model was enormous. It had an internal combustion engine that powered a piston pump used to draw air through a cloth filter. His idea was in motion but not practical for everyday use by the masses.

This machine, dubbed the “Puffing Billy,” had to be drawn by horses and placed outside buildings. The windows had to be open, and they snaked the protruding pipes from the machine inside the building. Knowing this would limit the number of businesses and households it could service, he developed an electric-powered version that still proved too big to be taken inside a building.

Over the coming decades, Booth would be the founder of the British Vacuum Cleaner Company which worked to reduce the size of the cleaners and provide services to a wider array of customers.

Notable Customers

It wasn't just industry that employed Booth's large machines. Queen Victoria is one of the most notable clients. It was at that time having the Puffing Billy outside your house became somewhat of a status symbol. The House of Commons, upscale department stores and the wealthiest sectors of society would call on Hubert Cecil Booth and his miracle invention. Ladies of high society would host social tea parties just to watch the vacuums work in their homes.

During WWI, 15 of these machines were hired to the Crystal Palace—an all-glass building originally built to house exhibitions but later requisitioned for a naval barracks. The Puffing Billies removed 26 tons of dust that had accumulated over its 60-year lifespan.

Booth's invention is credited for ending the plague in the British naval barracks. Because dust harbored germs that led to the spread of the disease and Booth's machines sucked up that dust, so too went the germs responsible for the plague. News of this accomplishment spread everywhere, even across the Atlantic, and that's when the race to make the next, best vacuum cleaner took hold of the world.

Improvements to the Vacuum

Reading an article about Booth's accomplishments, a janitor in Ohio by the name of Murray Spangler, who was allergic to dust, built a smaller electric version of the vacuum. He used a fan motor housed in a wooden crate, a broom handle, and a pillowcase as the filter, and it took off.

Murray went door to door selling his vacuums to housewives and pitched his idea to his cousin who also happened to be the wife of William Hoover. Hoover, a prominent businessman, saw the unlimited potential in Murray's invention and later bought the rights for the invention. He turned it into the Model O—the first upright vacuum cleaner--and the Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Company was born in 1908.

Other Notable Vacuum Advances

Vacuums have come a long way from Hubert Cecil Booth's original behemoth of a machine. Here are other milestones in the vacuum cleaner's history:

  • 1920—the first disposable bag vacuum is created
  • 1963—Oreck makes lightweight vacuums specifically designed for companies doing a lot of cleaning, such as hotels
  • 1979—Black and Decker makes small cordless vacuums that work on batteries
  • 1993—James Dyson releases the first bagless, dual cyclone vacuum
  • 1997—Electrolux unveils the first robotic vacuum at the BBC's Tomorrow's World
  • 2002—iRobot releases the Roomba, a small, round vacuum with AI and proximity sensors allowing it to clean rooms without involvement from people

Vacuum cleaners keep getting smaller and more efficient while continuing to be more hands-off and effective. The next great vacuum cleaner pioneer may be hard at work right now developing that which will revolutionize, yet again, this indispensable part of our lives.


The vacuum cleaner is one of those appliances we rely on upon without thinking about its origins. Imagine how different our lives would be without it. Hubert Cecil Booth saw a need for something to make lives easier, cleaner and more sanitary and did something about it. They say necessity is the mother of invention—all it took was the right mind to see the necessity and create the solution.

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