This 1996 TODAY show feature tells the story of James Murray Spangler, the inventor of one of the first portable electric vacuum cleaners in 1907, when only 10 percent of American homes had electricity. AIt was up to another man -- "Boss" Hoover -- to market the invention.
Eureka! The Invention of the Vacuum Cleaner
ELIZABETH VARGAS, co-host:
Every Thursday here on TODAY, LEONARD'S LOOK at, at, we have LEONARD'S LOOK, and our Mike Leonard examines another slice of American life. This morning it is an unsung hero who has made life a little easier for us all.
MIKE LEONARD reporting:
There you go again, vacuuming that same rug for, oh, maybe the millionth time. Does it ever get to you? Do you ever feel overqualified for the work, underappreciated for the effort? Do you ever fantasize about pouring your heart out to someone who would truly understand, someone like Murray Spangler.
STACEY KRAMMES: He had good ideas, but they didn't always work and they didn't always sell. So he was forced to take another job and he took a job as a janitor.
LEONARD: Then one day, to minimize the dust raised by sweeping, the very allergic Mr. Spangler took an ordinary broom handle, a simple cloth bag, and a covered fan and invented the first commercially successful portable electric vacuum cleaner. You probably didn't know that because Murray Spangler, like many other great inventors, got sucked up by the details of inventing, leaving the invention itself bearing the name of a person who was savvy enough to market it. In this case, the husband of Murray Spangler's cousin, W.H. "Boss" Hoover.
Mr. ELLSWORTH SMITH: Well, that's right, Boss Hoover was, was the man who made it, made it click.
LEONARD: A fact that 100-year-old Ellsworth Smith knows firsthand because he worked all his life with the Hoovers and was in North Canton, Ohio, in 1908 when Hoover's first business, the horse harness trade, became threatened by a strange new technology. Driven to diversify, Boss Hoover bought the rights to Spangler's invention. When the vacuum cleaner came out, did people know it was going to be a success right away?
Mr. SMITH: Oh, heavens no. I don't think so.
LEONARD: Other people had tried other ideas and they didn't work, says Hoover historian Stacey Krammes. So this was a gamble.
KRAMMES: And you see only 10 percent of the people at that time had electricity in their homes.
LEONARD: But that 40-pound suction sweeper sure beat beating rugs, and before long it was Mr. Hoover and not Mr. Spangler who really started to clean up.
LEONARD: If Murray Spangler were alive today to see the Hoover plant running 24 hours a day, to see all those other makes and models maneuvering for a share of the huge vacuum cleaner market, he'd slap his forehead in regret and mutter something he should have said back in 1908, `Eureka, what a gold mine.’
Mr. BRIAN GIRDLESTONE (Hoover North America): The penetration of vacuum cleaners in the home now would be somewhere between two and three per home.
LEONARD: And if that's not enough, Hoover techies, still drawing on Murray Spangler's original concept, keep adding new twists to his old idea.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And often the people who have the ideas don't get the credit, do they?
LEONARD: Meanwhile, in Hoover's human engineering lab, scientists peer through a two-way mirror at test subjects who don't even want to think about what life would be like without the vacuum cleaner.
Unidentified Woman: I can't even imagine.
LEONARD: This changed the course of history.
KRAMMES: You bet it did.
LEONARD: Yet, good old Murray remains a forgotten figure. Something to think about whenever you take on some thankless chore. For TODAY, Mike Leonard, NBC News, North Canton, Ohio.