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Summary: Nilfisk-Advance AS celebrates 100 years as a supplier of professional cleaning equipment.

Founded in 1906, Nilfisk-Advance AS, the global supplier of professional cleaning equipment, celebrates its 100th anniversary this February. It was in 1910, two years before the Model T Ford automobile rolled off the production line, that the company’s first vacuum cleaner was patented. This thought prompted a review of the steps taken in the development of commercial cleaning machines during the 20th century.  

To begin a history of mechanized cleaning one in fact has to go back more than 120 years, when an innovative crockery shop owner named Melville Bissell designed a sweeper to clean the sawdust particles used for packing the china in his Grand Rapids, Michigan store. The first Bissell factory was built in 1883, and even Britain’s Queen Victoria insisted that her palaces be ‘bisselled’ every day. Today, the company is still going strong.  

The vacuum cleaner itself also dates back to the latter half of the 19th century. Crude bellows operated machines were developed with the intention of creating a suction effect for cleaning. The experiments were, however, largely unsuccessful and were subsequently abandoned. A gasoline-powered invention was patented in the USA at the turn of the century that worked somewhat better. However, it was a huge monstrosity, the size of a small automobile, with four to six operators needed to man it. In Europe, British inventor Hubert Cecil Booth developed a similar contraption, and his invention was patented on August 31,1901. Obviously, these vacuum cleaners were not things that could be used indoors, so they were parked in the street belching smoke whilst very large hoses were fed through the windows. One can only imagine the magnitude of such housekeeping operations, and the decision to vacuum was surely one not taken lightly! St. Louis entrepreneur John Thurman used such a machine to become what is believed to be the world’s first contract cleaner.  

Six years later, in 1907, a janitor from Canton, Ohio named James Murray Spangler came up with the forerunner to today’s portable units. His prototype machine was made up of an old fan motor attached to a soapbox that was stapled to a broom handle. A pillowcase acted as the dust bag. This rudimentary machine set the design precedent for the upright vacuum cleaner that is to this day, essentially an American standard. Spangler’s design was patented in 1908. One of his first customers was a cousin of his married to a William H. Hoover, later to become the president of the Hoover Company. The rest, of course, is history!  

In Europe, meanwhile, two Danish entrepreneurs P.A. Fisker and H.M. Nielsen, formed a new company in February 1906. Located in a backyard workshop in Copenhagen, the company produced small electric motors. This in turn led to experiments using these motors as the power source for vacuum cleaners. Taking its name from the two founders, the Nilfisk canister vacuum was patented in 1910 and at just 37 pounds – the equivalent of a rather heavy suitcase, was the first ‘portable’ machine of its type. With so much cleaning power in such a ‘tiny’ machine, it was hailed as a huge technological breakthrough. Just two years later, fellow Scandinavian Axel Wenner-Gren began work on the first cylindrically designed vacuum cleaner, the Lux 1 – later to be known as Electrolux. Both Nilfisk and Electrolux were pioneers in the door-to-door sales techniques that led to the vacuum cleaner eventually becoming standard household equipment for millions of families. Suddenly, housewives were being liberated from physically demanding cleaning chores – a fact that some sociologists have even pointed to as having spawned the feminist movement of later years.    

Development work continued on mechanized cleaning equipment, although the first World War changed R & D priorities somewhat.  The end of the war saw a rapid expansion in sales internationally. People all over the world were marvelling at the fact that dust and dirt could actually be suctioned up, rather than merely moved around. Both Nilfisk and Electrolux were successfully opening export markets, and Hoover was becoming well established in Europe as well as throughout North America. It was in 1919 that Hoover added the beater bar to its upright vacuum cleaners, thus establishing the famous slogan: ‘It beats as it sweeps as it cleans.’ Little else changed, however, for rather a long time and it wasn’t until 1955 even that disposable paper dust bags were introduced. One notable development though was the use of the vacuum cleaner for industrial applications. This was largely the result of wartime production needs during the 1940’s, and it opened up a host of new uses and increased sales opportunities.  

Like vacuum cleaners, floor machines also trace their roots back to the turn of the last century. The American Floor Surfacing Machine Company (AFSM) was incorporated in 1903 in San Francisco following the invention of a motor driven floor finisher based on the same principles as board-sanding devices used in lumber mills. Once again, wartime industrial demands interrupted the development of cleaning machines, and it was only in the late 1940’s that the next breakthrough happened. A small American company by the name of Lincoln-Schleuter that had formerly been working on a gas powered floor scrubber, came up with the concept of an electric powered version of the device. This led to the first ever self-contained walk-behind scrubber being developed in 1954, whereupon AFSM purchased Lincoln-Schleuter and renamed the company, American Lincoln.  

American Lincoln has subsequently played a significant role in the development of professional floor care equipment, and has been responsible for a number of industry firsts including the first ride-on sweeper-scrubber, introduced to the market in 1974. Versions for industrial applications soon followed.  

The 1980’s saw the introduction of lighter weight, corrosion-resistant materials such as polyethylene and fibreglass as replacements for traditional steel and metal frames. This was a development that was spearheaded mostly by European manufacturers. Nowadays of course, the quality and strength of plastic has been well established and this has become the universal choice for equipment manufacturers. The other major developments of the more recent years have been related to safety and health concerns. Filtration systems are now very sophisticated, ergonomics are routinely taken into all new design considerations, and noise levels have been steadily lowered as technical know-how has increased.  

If the first 50 or 60 years of the 20th century were devoted to finding effective ways to mechanise cleaning, the latter part of the century has clearly seen the development of refinements that have improved efficiency and eased the work. As Nilfisk-Advance enjoys its centennial celebrations, its customers can take comfort from the fact that models now weighing as little as just 9 pounds have replaced the ‘breakthrough’ 37-pound vacuum cleaner of 1910. In the world of cleaning at least, getting more for less is possible after all.

Nilfisk-Advance Group

With the acquisition of ALTO in spring 2004, Nilfisk-Advance became the world’s leading supplier of professional cleaning machines. As a result of the acquisition the Nilfisk-Advance organization was expanded by a further number of production and sales subsidiaries in Europe, North America and the Far East. Nilfisk-Advance has today a turnover of approximately 670m EUR and employs around 3,800 people. The Company has production in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Hungary, USA, Singapore and China, and sales subsidiaries in 35 countries. In combination with an extensive network of dealers, Nilfisk-Advance is globally represented.

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