Thursday, April 1, 2010

April 3: David Kenney, "Father of the Vacuum Cleaner Industry"

Note: Great Lives is honored to present our first guest blogger, Mary Robinson Sive, who contributed this life story to the Great Lives blog. Mary is the author of Lost villages: historic driving tours in the Catskills as well as other works.

An almost forgotten New Jersey inventor was a pioneer in the vacuum cleaner industry long before this appliance became a standard piece of equipment in most households. Historical accounts often do not give this self-taught and self-made man credit, some dismissing him as a “New Jersey plumber;” others not mentioning him at all. Yet the patents he received between 1903 and 1913 placed him at the center of the American vacuum cleaner industry in the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1910 the New York Times called him the “father of the vacuum cleaner industry.”

The son of Irish immigrants, Kenney at age 15 was apprenticed to a plumber and soon had his own business with offices in New Jersey and New York City. In the 1890s he received patents for a “Flushometer” (to flush toilets) and other plumbing devices that proved quite profitable. Soon he joined the many other inventors who sought to improve housecleaning by mechanical means. By 1902 he installed a steam engine in Pittsburgh that could suck dust out of all parts of a large building.

(Frick Building 1902 installation)
An English engineer, H. Cecil Booth, coined the term “vacuum cleaner” for his truck-mounted invention. He applied for a US patent during the time that Kenney also had several patent applications pending. Kenney received his most significant patent in 1907 after a six-year wait. The Englishman’s application for a US patent was now moot.

According to a 1906 ad Kenney's firm counted the White House and the New York Times building among its customers for stationary central vacuum systems. Two years later it was chosen to install such a system in New York's Singer Building, at the time the world’s tallest office structure, and later provided such service in the US Treasury building.

In a highly competitive environment Kenney was aggressive in pursuing his business interests. He was successful in several lawsuits alleging patent infringement and eventually gave up manufacturing in favor of licensing other companies.

Portable vacuum cleaners came into their own after James Spangler received a patent in 1909 for one powered by electricity and sold it to William Henry Hoover, a name still recognized. But electric power was far from universally available, and a market existed for hand-operated cleaners. Sears Roebuck began offering three versions of such machines the same year.

Anyone living on a farm or in a small town who hoped to clean floors in a modern manner had to use a vacuum cleaner operated by hand. And that vacuum most likely used the nozzle patented by Kenney.

Most of the manual vacuums that survive are of a plunger type (shown in the middle above) that functioned somewhat like a bicycle pump in reverse, with the operator pushing the handle down a tube, then pulling it back up and depositing dust in a container. Other models required operation by two individuals. Sears offered a money-back guarantee on the three models advertised, but within eight years the manually operated cleaners were gone from the catalog and only electric ones were shown. Perhaps word got around that they weren’t really “labor-saving devices.” Women who grew up in farm homes in the 1920s and 1930s remember seeing manual cleaners, but they don’t actually remember their mothers ever using them much.
Manual vacuum cleaners are described in few books dealing with home life or homemaking during the pre-World War I period. Women’s history institutions have no photographs. More examples are found in small local history collections than in major museums. The Hoover Company’s Historical Center in Canton, OH has a number of these appliances, but the largest number is held by a private collector (

In 1920 1,024,167 vacuum cleaners were sold for a total of $35 million, most undoubtedly electric. The industry for whose growth he was given so much credit by his contemporaries was well-established. Kenney now turned his inventive skills to yet another field and received his last patent in 1920, this for a heating system designed to improve the distribution of heat from a wood-burning fireplace.

The income from his various patents enabled Kenney to pursue other business interests, including real estate transactions beginning early in his career. During the long wait for the 1907 patent Kenney asked the Sisters of Mercy, an order of Catholic nuns who were his daughter’s teachers, to pray for him. His donations beginning in 1905 and continuing to the end of his life totaled over 70 acres and enabled Mt. St. Mary’s College, founded by the order in 1873, to move to a site near his manufacturing operations. He took an active part in the planning of the buildings for the school, which opened in 1908 with elementary and secondary classes and included seven girls in a college department. The school continues as a girls’ prep school with several hundred students. Kenney’s generosity resulted in his being made a Papal Chamberlain by Pope Pius X in 1906. Other civic activities included service on the board of a hospital and of a reform school.

Booth’s name appears in the British Dictionary of National Biography and in biographical reference works dealing with technology. The vacuum cleaners he invented and manufactured are held in London’s Science Museum. Kenney’s name cannot be found in corresponding American reference books, the Library of Congress’ “American Memory” or its Prints and Photographs Collection, nor in the Smithsonian Institution. While the courts uniformly held his patents applicable to portable household cleaners as well as to central installations, the industry largely shifted away from the systems serving entire buildings that he had pioneered in this country. His vacuum cleaner patents survived David Kenney by a few years. He committed suicide in May 1922. His body was found near Beacon, NY, after he had been missing about ten days. He had been in ill health for some years and had recently lost his wife and a sister. He was long forgotten by the 1980s, when the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame was inaugurated with names like Edison and Einstein.

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