A Brief History of Street Sweepers

In continuation of Plant Planet’s ‘Brief History of…’ series, we are exploring the invention and advancements of the Street Sweeper. at Combine Harvesters.

They keep our streets clean, but where did they come from? How long has the street sweeper been on our roads? These questions will be answered in this edition of ‘A brief history of…’

The First Street Sweeper

Example of a first horse-drawn street sweeper
Image courtesy of Emil Dietrich via wiki commons

During the industrial revolution in 1840’s Britain, Manchester had become one of the most developed industrial cities. It was home to one of the world’s largest textiles as well as first passenger rail service. However, all the industrialisations had led to the Manchester streets becoming dumping grounds for large amounts of rubbish of all types of waste, being piled into the streets, resulting in numerous health concerns. Joseph Whitworth, an English engineer, entrepreneur, inventor and philanthropist had the solution. In 1843, he invented the first street cleaner, which he named ‘the patent street sweeping machine of Manchester’.

Throughout the years there have been many adaptations and variants of the street sweeper that continue throughout history. In the United States C.S. Bishop further adapted a variation of the street sweeper that already existed. His version was patented in 1849. Both early versions were horse-drawn. The front of the machine had brooms attached, much like the ones we still see today, which would sweep the debris onto twin, slat conveyer belts, which would then deposit the collected material into a container.

Street sweepers becoming motorised

Example of a first motorised street sweeper
Image courtesy of wiki

It wasn’t until almost 50 years later in 1896 that Charles B. Brooks, another American inventor, saw the need to improve upon C.S. Bishop’s street sweeper. While Bishop’s street sweeper was a definite improvement on the days where a man would manually take a long broom shovel or dustpan to the streets, Brooks decided he could further make the job easier than Brook’s tow behind design which still had to be somewhat manned behind a horse. Bishop designed the first self-propelled street sweeper, which featured a broom or sweeper which was mounted and attached to a truck frame on the axles which were then supported by front and rear wheels.  The wheels on the cart turned gears or chains which drove the brush and belt. Bishop’s design is that most similar to the street sweepers we see today. Bishop’s patent application was filed on April 20th 1895 but his patent design wasn’t approved until March 17th, 1896.

Eureka C. Browne was the first known woman in history to achieve a patent for a street sweeper. Her invention was designed to be driven by a steam engine and was designed for the intention for cleaning railroad tracks. Her invention was patented in 1879.

In 1911, John M. Murphey further adapted this design and invented the first motor-driven pick-up street sweeper. However, this invention never materialised and was only designed on paper. Murphey managed to convince the American Tower and Tank company from Elgin, Illinois that his idea would work and together they founded the Elgin Sweeper Company. After two years of experimenting, in 1913, the City of Boise, Idaho, bought their first Elgin sweeper. John M. Murphey continued to experiment and improve his sweeper design. In 1917, he patented the new version with a new conveyer belt system which would replace the original slat conveyor. This new system took dirt directly from the brushes to the dirt box.

What’s changed in today’s street sweepers?

A modern-day street sweeper
Image courtesy of wiki commons

The general design of the street sweepers didn’t change until the end of the 1990s. Elgin’s sweepers only removed larger pieces of rubbish, with the smaller bits being washed away by the rain. This led to concerns for the waterways as they were being polluted by the small particles and the hazardous waste being washed into them by the rain. Street sweeper machines were upgraded to include water tanks and sprayers which worked to reduce dust and loosen particles which could then be swept up safely. The newest sweepers can clean and hold particles that measure less than 10 microns in size.

Street sweepers are also integral to environmental cleanliness. The street sweeper removes harmful waste from streets, reduces local flooding and protects fish and aquatic wildlife. They also protect us from harmful dust particles which can sit at the bottom of our lungs and affect our breathing.

Street Sweepers today have evolved to be mounted on truck bodies and can vacuum debris that accumulates on streets. With today’s technological advancements, machinery is continually being adapted and improved upon, particularly to contribute to be more environmentally friendly. In 2018, the first fully electric street sweeper was invented by Swiss street sweeper manufacturer, Boschung, which releases zero emissions, named The Sweeper S2.0. The Environmental Protection Agency considers street sweeping the best practice in protecting water quality.

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