A Clean Sweep: The History of Street Sweepers

We take clean streets for granted, but there’s a lot that goes into keeping dirt, grime, and trash off the streets. That’s where street sweepers come in, and while they predate the automobile, they remain an invaluable part of our society’s waste management system. Let’s look at the history of street sweepers.

Victorian England – Crossing Sweepers 

  • Prior to the invention of motorized transport, London claimed over 100,000 horses, fueled by a diet high in fiber. Combine that with lax sanitation and rainy weather for streets that were overrun with filth.
  • From the early 1800s to the early 1900s, crossing sweepers were tasked with sweeping a path for those crossing the dirty streets.
  • When the streets were muddy, crossing sweepers were responsible for digging trenches to allow passage for carriages and pedestrians.

1843 – The Patent Street Sweeping Machine of Manchester

  • Joseph Whitworth patents a horse-drawn machine designed to pick up debris.
  • The simple machine comprises a cylinder with attached brushes that spin by means of a bicycle chain. This is designed to simply remove trash and debris in the streets of England.
  • On December 15, 1854, Whitworth’s invention is put into operation in Philadelphia.

1911 – First Motorized Street Sweeper 

  • In Elgin, Illinois, John M. Murphy pitches his idea for a motorized street sweeper to the offices of American Tower and Tank Company.
  • Charles A. Whiting and James Todd, partners in the company, hire Murphy and put the idea into production.
  • Whiting, Todd, Murphy, and silent partner Daniel M. Todd establish the Elgin Sweeper Company.
  • Murphy’s motorized sweeper uses a broom to sweep up large particles of dirt and trash. A conveyor belt takes the dirt from the broom to a receptacle.
  • In 1913, after 2 years of prototyping, the Elgin Sweeper Company sells its first machine to the City of Boise, Idaho.
  • A study in October 1914 shows that the Elgin Sweeper saves $2,716.77 over Whitworth’s horse-drawn sweeper.

1970s – Tech Advances and the Environment 

  • Policymakers show concern for waterways. While the Elgin street sweepers effectively remove large road debris, they fail to pick up small particles and hazardous waste products.
  • Small particles carry pollution into storm drains that lead to oceans and waterways.
  • During this time, street sweepers are upgraded to include water tanks and sprayers, which reduce dust and loosen particles.
  • The newest street sweepers can collect and hold particles measuring less than 10 microns in size.

Squeaky Clean Streets

Today, street sweepers are integral to environmental cleanliness by:

  • Reducing heavy metals and pollutants that enter waterways
  • Protecting fish and aquatic wildlife
  • Improving water quality
  • Reducing localized flooding
  • Removing harmful pollutants


  • http://auto.howstuffworks.com/street-sweeper.htm
  • http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2007/11/10/crossing-sweepers/
  • http://famousdaily.com/history/first-street-cleaning-machine-philadelphia.html
  • http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/periodicals/punch/17.html
  • http://www.mycleanstreet.com/history-of-the-Modern-Street-Sweeper.shtml

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