Unlearn Everything You Knew Was a Vacuum and Find Out the Truth!

traces of a vacuum cleaner on a carpet

Featured Image by jarmoluk via Pixabay

Quick! Put down everything you're doing and focus. Now, answer the following question. What is a vacuum? Don't think, just answer.

If you're like the vast majority of people, you'll instantly think of a vacuum cleaner.

woman cleaning the floor using a vacuum cleaner while man just sits down and read the newspaper

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But there are a few people who will think of a vacuum in its truest sense when they hear this word. Most likely, these people are physics buffs.

The truth is:

The device that you push around the house to clean your carpets is not actually a vacuum. It incorporates the concept of a vacuum, but you can't actually accurately call it a vacuum.

If you're interested in finding out more about both vacuums and vacuum cleaners, there is actually a lot to know.

And, surprisingly, it's a lot more interesting than you think.

Tell Me About the Vacuum

In science, a vacuum is very different from what most people think when they hear the word.

Physicists, engineers, and astronomers would define a vacuum as a space that does not contain matter.

FUN FACT: The majority of the solar system is a vacuum in itself!

You may think that describes all of the air around you, but that's actually not true. Guess why? The air that surrounds you and that fills your lungs as you breathe is full of particles. There are all sorts of molecules of matter in that air.

person puts water on a chemical substance and suddenly exploded

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If you go back to elementary school science class, you'll remember that matter can be solids, liquids, or gases. And air is made up of gases.

So what is a vacuum, really? How can one be created?

Scientists have techniques that they use to create vacuums. One thing they can do is use a vacuum pump that sucks air out of a sealed container. You know, much like the popular cleaning tool by the same name sucks the dirt off of your carpet.

Wink, wink.

The difference is when the vacuum pump is used to create an actual vacuum, there will be little or no pressure inside the sealed container.

FUN FACT: You can blow up a balloon without filling it with air by using a vacuum pump. All you need to do is put the partially inflated balloon in a sealed container, use a vacuum pump to remove the air surrounding the balloon and watch the balloon expand.

This is happening because the air pressure in the balloon is now higher than the air pressure in the vacuum surrounding it!

How the Vacuum Cleaner Got Its Name

man dressed in a woman's outfit came out of the room holding a vacuum cleaner

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Even though you might now think that the term "vacuum cleaner" is a misnomer, it's really not.

Because vacuum cleaners actually do utilize vacuums in a way, in order to do what they do.

We're going to go into more detail on how exactly vacuum cleaners work later, but for now, suffice it to say that part of how they work involves an actual vacuum.

Here's the deal:

You see, inside the vacuum, there's an area where the air pressure drops below the level of air pressure that is outside the vacuum cleaner. This creates a partial vacuum, which leads to suction. This is how the vacuum is able to take all of the dirt off of your carpet.

A Brief History of the Vacuum Cleaner

Most people would probably think of the history of the vacuum cleaner as a dry and boring subject.

And vacuum cleaners are important. Think about it. If you have carpets and value cleanliness in your home, a vacuum cleaner is practically a necessity.

It might interest you to know, too, that vacuum cleaners haven't changed as much over time as you might think.

This is surprising, right?

After all, look at computers. They've gone from being humongous contraptions that took up entire rooms to small portable devices that you can take anywhere.

And look at the difference between a rotary phone from decades ago and your smartphone, which fits in your pocket and is basically like a computer itself.

But vacuums haven't changed nearly as much. In fact, if you ask Tom Gasko, who is the curator at the Vacuum Cleaner Museum in Tacony Manufacturing in the city of St. James, Missouri:

"A vacuum cleaner from 1910 would clean the rug just as well as a modern vacuum cleaner from today." 

Tom Gasko

Tom Gasko the Curator of the Tacony Vacuum Museum

Image by Tacony Corporation via vacuummuseum

How the vacuum cleaner came to be

Believe it or not, vacuum cleaners actually started with brooms in a way.

Brooms actually go all the way back to about 2,300 BC. However, they weren't made efficient until about 1797. That's when Levi Dickenson, a Massachusetts farmer, noticed his wife having a hard time with their broom.

Basically, the bristles kept falling out, and it wasn't really doing its job anyway.

So what he did was put together a broom that was made of a type of sorghum. Sorghum is a grain that is generally used as livestock feed and grows like corn.

I keep telling you. I just grown sorghum here giphy

Image by giphy

Because sorghum is stiff, strong, and doesn't easily fall apart, it ended up being the perfect material for a broom.

Dickenson started by selling them to neighbors, but within three years, he, his sons, and his servants were making and selling hundreds of brooms all over New England.

As great as this invention was, though, people soon wanted something more efficient.

And it makes sense when you think about it. As great as a broom can be in some situations, don't you prefer a vacuum when you're actually cleaning your carpet?

Vacuum cleaners enter the scene

There were many inventions for rudimentary vacuum cleaners that didn't end up being so great.

In England, there were inventors who put together mechanical sweepers for not only floors and carpets but also streets. They operated using an inner system of cranks and pulleys. They had a sweeping apparatus or rotating brushes that would push dirt inside. However, these really weren't much better than brooms.

man using a vacuum cleaner to clean his beard

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The first vacuum cleaner, for reals

Daniel Hess was the one who created what is really considered the first rudimentary vacuum cleaner. He patented his machine in 1860.

"The nature of my invention consists in drawing fine dust and dirt through the machine by means of a draft of air." -- Daniel Hess

As he said himself, this was the dawn of machines that actually incorporated the movement of air to clean.

Of course, the machine was still quite cumbersome. You needed another device to create suction and draw in the dirt. But this was the inception of the modern vacuum cleaner.

Slight improvements...

a portrait of Ives McGaffey who remodel the vacuum cleaner

Image by Library of Congress via Wiki Commons

In 1869, Ives McGaffey, a Chicago inventor, created a slightly better model.

This one utilized a fan to move air, and the machine actually stood upright, much like the modern vacuum.

However, even though this was closer to what would eventually end up being a successful vacuum cleaner, the "Whirlwind" ended up being another failure.

This is what happened:

It was operated via hand crank, making it quite a bit harder to use than a broom.

In fact:

The company that produced the Whirlwind almost went out of business because of this contraption. Due to the slow sales and two factory fires, almost all Whirlwinds were destroyed by 1872.

And then, the invention of gasoline brought about a new chapter in the vacuum cleaner. In 1898, the St. Louis inventor John S. Thurman created his "pneumatic carpet renovator," which was powered by gasoline.

There was no sucking, so it wasn't technically a vacuum cleaner. However, it did create a blast of air to dislodge the dust and blow it into the receptacle of the device.

But the bad news was:

The thing was the size of a horse-drawn carriage.

Thurman made house calls, but obviously, it wasn't practical for him or anyone to mass market these.

How vacuums made their debut in homes

Of course, there were many people who tried to improve on Thurman's invention, but success was marginal at best.

The English structural engineer, Hubert Cecil Booth, however, did make some progress that lead to where we are today with the vacuum cleaner.

He basically reverse-engineered Thurman's patent and gave rise to the "Puffing Billy." Gasoline powered the humongous contraption, which became very well known around town.

By 1900, workers were building this device into the homes of the wealthy, hotels, high-rises in big cities, et cetera. However, it was really only for the upper class.

In 1907, James Murray Spangler, an Ohio janitor who also had a knack for invention, used a broom, pillowcase, and electric motor to create an upright device that he patented in 1907. It was a crude machine, but it was effective. It sucked dirt from surfaces and blew it back into the pillowcase that was attached.

Kinda sounds familiar, doesn't it?

However, he was having trouble with finances and marketing, so he turned to his cousin, Susan Hoover, for help.

portrait of James Murray Spangler a janitor who created a patented vacuum cleaner

Image Author Unkown via Wiki Commons

The Dawn of the Hoover...

portrait of william hoover a well known leather manufacturer

Image by geneanet

Susan Hoover was married to William Hoover, a well-known leather goods manufacturer. He purchased Spangler's patent and ended up turning the rudimentary invention into a success.

Long story short:

Hoover is still a household name. Spangler did come up with the ingenious prototype for what we still use today. However, the reality is that his business would likely have failed had he not gotten the Hoovers involved.

Of course, the contraptions have become sleeker, smaller, and more streamlined snce Spangler's inception of the modern vacuum cleaner. However, the fundamental structure really has not changed significantly since then.

How Vacuum Cleaners Work: The Mechanism

person using a mini vacuum cleaner to suck up dirt on the floor

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These days, there are so many different kinds of vacuum cleaners. The mechanisms of how they all work can differ quite a bit.

However, there are some unifying principles. Right now, we are going to describe the parts and workings of a conventional vacuum cleaner.

Components of a vacuum cleaner

Basically, there are six parts to the conventional vacuum cleaner. These include the intake port, exhaust port, electric motor, fan, porous bag/filter, and housing. The housing basically contains all of the other components that are not necessary to understand the basic mechanism of how it works.

FUN FACT: Porous bags in vacuum cleaners are also known as microfiltration bags. They can capture dust particles that are up to 0.3 microns in size, and they are known to capture about 99 percent of dust particles.

In many vacuums, the intake port will contain a variety of cleaning accessories.

How the components work together

Essentially, the components of the vacuum will work together to create an actual partial vacuum that ends up sucking dirt off your floor.

Think about when you use a straw to sip your favorite drink. When you suck the air out of the straw, your drink from the glass will take its place and end up in your mouth.

You may not think of it this way, but you are basically creating a space devoid of matter with your mouth. You are sucking the air out of the straw, so the liquid will take its place.

Stay with me:

That's because matter tends to occupy empty space and flow to areas with lower air pressure.

Interesting, right? When you think about yourself sucking juice or soda through a straw, you probably think you're just generating a force that pulls the liquid towards your mouth. But really, it's all about the air pressure difference, rather than actual force.

The inner workings of a vacuum cleaner

When you plug in your vacuum cleaner, there are few things that are going to happen.

man pulling the string of a vacuum cleaner to start the motor

Image by  Giphy

The start of the electric current will start the motor.

vacuum cleaner being put on the lips of a sleeping woman

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The motor is attached to the fan, whose blades will start to turn. When these blades start to spin, they will force air towards the exhaust port. This air will basically flow outward.

vacuum cleaner cleaning the carpet on the floor

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Because the air particles are going outside the vacuum, the density of particles right outside the vacuum and in front of the fan is going to be higher than that inside and behind the fan. So of course, the air pressure is going to be lower inside as well.

father uses a vacuum cleaner to fix her child's hair

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Because of the difference in air pressure, which creates a partial vacuum, air from the outside is sucked into the vacuum through the intake port. As long as the fan is running, a constant stream of air will be sucked in.

vacuum cleaner cleanse all the dirt on the floor

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The air and dirt from outside travels to the exhaust port and passes through the vacuum cleaner filter on its way. These filters are full of holes that are big enough to let air particles through but too small for most of the particles. They end up collecting the dirt and debris.

Enhancements to the process

Also, it helps to know that many modern vacuums also have rotating brushes. It's not crucial to the design of the vacuum, but it can be very efficient.

Basically, the rotating brush is powered by the same motor that runs the fan. It's on the outside and rotates to loosen particles of dust and dirt that are trapped in the carpet.

man using a vacuum cleaner in his house

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Of course, this makes it much easier for the vacuum to suck in these particles.

The physics behind vacuuming

woman using a vacuum cleaner while playing a hula hoop on her waist

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Basically, if you want an explanation of the physics behind how your carpet gets clean, it all boils down to two concepts. These would be negative pressure and friction.

We have already basically explained negative pressure here. It's the difference in air pressure between the inside and outside of the vacuum.

But that's not all:

Also crucial to the process, however, is friction. What is friction, you ask? Well, basically, it is the action of one object or surface rubbing against the other and the resistance that results.

And that is exactly what happens when you vacuum your carpet.

The spinning of the fan, combined with negative pressure, causes the movement of air particles. These moving air particles basically rub up against the dirt particles, which ends up carrying those dirt particles into the machine with the air.

So, big or small, friction works the same way.

Two categories of filters

Even though the mechanism is pretty much the same for the vast majority of vacuum cleaners, different types of vacuum cleaners have different filters.

They generally either come with a bag or a HEPA filter.

Vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters

Most modern vacuums come with a HEPA filter. These are more convenient in a way because this means you don't have to change the bag every so often.

However, you will have to change the filter. You'll usually get an alert when the filter is full of debris from outside.

Here's what you need to know:

The HEPA filter is a cylinder of folded paper that attaches to the base of the dirt bin. There is air suction through the filter that will pick up all of the dirt. Very dense glass fibers compose the paper that makes up the filter. It operates, then, like a sieve that filters out particles.

Micron and HEPA filters can be more effective at filtering dirt than traditional models of vacuum cleaners that use bags. In fact, this could be very good for people who have asthma.

HEPA filters are also very effective when it comes to reducing emissions.

Vacuum cleaners with bags

woman using a vacuum to clean the floor while her audience sits on the chair

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The more old-fashioned models of vacuum cleaners have bags.

Generally, you have to change these either after every cleaning session or after every few. This may seem cumbersome to some, but many people still own these vacuums and prefer them.

Different Types of Modern Vacuum Cleaners

Of course, there have been many steps along the way to create the vacuum cleaner that you know and love.

But you also know that there's not just one type of vacuum cleaner.

In fact, there are many types of vacuum cleaners, to appeal to people with different tastes and different needs when it comes to cleaning their homes.

old woman uses a huge vacuum to clean a small space of her house

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FUN FACT: The invention of the dustbuster was a result of space mission technologies that Black & Decker developed.


Robot vacuum cleaners have become very popular recently.

baby riding on a remote controlled vacuum on the floor

Image by giphy

Part of this is because of the novelty of these gadgets, but it's largely because they require so little effort from the person.

You've probably at least seen them on TV. These vacuum cleaners are able to roam around your home on their own.

And not only that:

They're able to reach areas that traditional vacuum cleaners couldn't. For example, they can go under the couch.

However, you should keep in mind that these are usually very expensive.


Canister vacuum cleaners have a similar power to upright cleaners but a similar slender frame to the stick cleaners.

With the canister vacuum, a large canister connects to a long wand. You can use these to clean not only carpeted areas but also bare flooring, such as hardwood.

These tend to be relatively expensive, due to the fact that they are multifunctional and utilize very impressive modern technology.


man using a vacuum to put out the fire in his yard

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Upright cleaners are probably the most popular type of vacuum cleaners around. This is probably what you think of when you think of the typical vacuum cleaner.

These models are the most effective in cleaning up your house. Also, they're very user-friendly and have functions and accessories that are easy for the layperson to understand.

And you might know:

Most upright models include settings that allow you to vacuum the bare floor in addition to carpets.

Handheld vacuums are great for people who need to clean areas that are very hard to reach. For example, these are great for vacuuming the insides of cars, including under the seats.

As the name implies, you're supposed to hold it in one hand. It's versatile and great for sucking dirt out of small places that couldn't be reached with a larger vacuum.

However, you should keep in mind that it wouldn't be a great idea to use this to clean an entire room. It would simply take too long.


person using a vacuum to  massage a dog's body

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This is likely the least powerful of vacuum cleaners. However, they're great for getting into small and narrow places.

Stick vacuum cleaners are also great for cleaning light carpeting, area rugs, and hardwood floors.

woman using a vacuum to clean both the floor and the carpet on it

Image by giphy

This type of vacuum cleaner has a slim construction overall, as well as a long, stick-like handle.

The great thing is:

It's easy to store after you are done using it to clean, as most of these fit into small spaces very easily.

What to Consider When Buying a Vacuum Cleaner

old woman enjoys using the vacuum to clean the floor of her house

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There is no doubt that vacuum cleaners have come a long way since the first rudimentary models.

Now, they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes with a variety of different features too. You can choose a vacuum cleaner that appeals to your needs and tastes.

You may want a vacuum cleaner that looks cool but remember that it's most important that it's able to clean well.


Depending on your specific cleaning needs, some of these could be very useful for you.

accessories that come with a vacuum cleaner

Image by pandorasoem


Most modern vacuum cleaners come with accessories that help with all sorts of cleaning jobs.

Some of the most common ones include additional brushes, narrow sucking tools for crevices, and vacuum hoses.

Brushes work to dislodge dirt from the carpet, making it easier for the machine to suck it in.

Additional tools, such as vacuum hoses, operate via the same mechanism as the vacuum cleaner itself. They create partial vacuums so that the device sucks in dirt. Some of these are simply smaller so that you can get to those hard-to-reach areas.

person maneuvering the carpet height adjustment control button

Image by Sprint via bestcordlessvacuumguide

Carpet height adjustment control

Many modern vacuum cleaners have manual setting options for the height of the carpet.

If it's set to vacuum a very thick carpet, for example, you will need more power to really get in there.

On the other hand:

You can set your vacuum cleaner to clean an uncarpeted floor, such as vinyl or hardwood surfaces.

Most of the time, this entails the machine switching the brush of the vacuum cleaner on or off. Other vacuums simply have a bare floor setting.

roller brush of the vacuum

Image by Eureka via vacuumsinc

Roller brush

People also refer to this as the brush agitator, and you can find it on the underside of some vacuum cleaners.

Basically, what it does is dislodge dirt from your carpet, so that it can be sucked into the machine more easily.

Be on the lookout:

Some models have a switch where you can turn the brush on and off.

This is useful, as you don't want the brush to erode your hardwood floors or have rugs and curtains become tangled in your vacuum cleaner.

self propelling ability of the vacuum

Image by Hoover via Amazon

Self-propelling ability

Some modern vacuum cleaners use drive systems and transmissions to assist the movement of the vacuum.

This makes it so that the user doesn't need to put in a lot of effort.

However, it makes the vacuum cleaner heavier and difficult to carry in some cases.

bag attached to the vacuum

Image by Royal Commercial via victoryathleticsspirit

Bag or no bag -- that is the question

Some people prefer vacuum cleaners that use bags, while others prefer the bagless types.

It's true that if you have a bagless vacuum cleaner, you won't have to purchase bags.

You'll save money that way.

However, you should remember that these have filters instead of bags. The filters need cleaning on a regular basis. And in the case of HEPA filters, they will need to be replaced every so often.

On top of that:

Additionally, it can be a big problem to deal with replacing these filters if you have allergies or asthma.

vacuum with noise control feature

Image by Electrolux via homequicks.

Noise levels

For some people, it doesn't matter how loud a vacuum cleaner is.

As long as it gets the job done, who cares, right?

But if you live in an apartment building with very thin walls and complaining neighbors, or you have pets who are scared of loud noises, you may want to consider getting a quieter vacuum cleaner.

Remember that any vacuum cleaner will seem louder in a room that tends to create a lot of echoes.

But here's the truth:

Canister vacuum cleaners tend to be the quietest.

Now That You Know All About Vacuums and Vacuum Cleaners...

You probably can't wait to vacuum your house, so that you can see the principles you just learned in action!

man dancing while using the vacuum to clean the carpet on his house

Image by giphy

Okay, so maybe that's a little bit of a stretch.

But you can't deny that there is a lot of interesting information where the vacuum cleaner is concerned. In fact, it's quite fascinating.

Think about all of those failed attempts from brilliant minds to create that seemingly simple contraption that you use a few times a week.

Add to that the physics principles you utilize every time you turn on your vacuum cleaner, and it's enough to blow your mind!

Or should we say suck?

Best of all, now you'll really be able to strut your stuff when someone asks you, "What is a vacuum?"

You may still continue to think of your vacuum cleaner as just a vacuum, but you will know that technically that's not what it is.

Sure, you'll have an understanding of the way in which the machine uses the concept of a vacuum, but you'll also understand that the vacuum cleaner and vacuum are not one and the same.

So the bottom line is this:

As much as vacuum cleaners do suck, they really are pretty cool.

Did you know a vacuum creates a vacuum? Which kind of vacuum cleaner do you have in your house? Tell us about it in the comments!

man dancing while showing the parts of the vacuum

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