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Sucks to be him! How Henry the vacuum cleaner became an accidental design icon

Sucks to be him! How Henry the vacuum cleaner became an accidental design icon

7/24/2021 12:04:00 PM

Sucks to be him! How Henry the vacuum cleaner became an accidental design icon

Henry is a fixture in millions of homes – including 10 Downing Street – despite almost no advertising. Meet the man behind a curiously British success story

. Henry? Not so much. But if Dyson brought aspiration, innovation and an air of exclusivity to Big Vacuum, Henry, the only mass-produced consumer vacuum cleaner still made in Britain, brought simplicity, reliability – and a cheerful lack of airs. “Bollocks to that!” is Duncan’s reaction when I suggest that he should also write a memoir.

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That’s my boy: Chris Duncan, Henry’s inventor.Photograph: Ben Quinton/The GuardianThe son of a London policeman, Duncan wears a short-sleeved shirt with open collar; his eyes glint behind gold-rimmed specs. He lives 10 minutes from the Chard HQ. His Porsche has a “Henry” numberplate, but he owns no other homes and eschews yachts and other baubles in favour of a 40-hour week and the company of Ann, his wife of 35 years (he has three sons from a previous marriage). Modesty permeates Numatic. The campus is more

Wernham Hoggthan Silicon Valley; the firm never advertises Henry and retains no PR agency. Yet it has a turnover of almost £160m and has now made more than 14m Henry vacuums, including a record 32,000 in the week before my visit, thanks to a pandemic-related surge in demand for household appliances. headtopics.com

When Duncan received his MBE at Buckingham Palace in 2013, Ann was led into the auditorium to witness the honour. “A guy in uniform said, ‘What does your husband do?’” he recalls. “She said, ‘He makes Henry vacuum cleaners.’ He nearly shit himself! He said: ‘When I get home and tell my wife I’ve met Mr Henry, she is going to be so livid she wasn’t here.’ And it’s stupid, but those sorts of stories are worth their weight in gold. We don’t need a publicity machine because it’s self-generating. Every Henry goes out there with a face on it.”

Iwill at this stage admit to a slight Henry obsession. I didn’t think about my girlfriend Jess’s Henry a great deal when I moved in with her 10 years ago, or when he moved with us to a new home after our marriage. It was only after the arrival of our son in 2017 that he began to occupy a bigger place in our family.

Jake, who is nearly four, was one when he first met Henry. It was early one morning, before dawn, and Henry had been left out of the cupboard the night before. Jake wore a striped babygrow and, placing his milk bottle on the wooden floor, crouched to inspect a curious object that was as big as he was. It was the start of a great romance. Jake insisted that Henry be liberated from his dark cupboard; for months, he was the first thing Jake went to in the morning, and the last thing he thought of at night. “I love you,” Jess said above his cot one evening before lights out. “I love Henry,” came the reply.

When Jake discovered my mum had an upstairs Henryanda downstairs Henry, to save on lifting, he was beside himself. For days, the imaginary stories he demands after his book at bedtime were about Granny’s Henrys. They would call out to each other at night, meeting for domestic adventures. In an effort to return Henry to the cupboard, I bought Jake a toy Henry. He could now hug little Henry as he fell asleep, his “trunk” entwined in his fingers. headtopics.com

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To find a lid, I took the oil drum round all the shops – then I ordered 5,000 black washing-up bowlsThe affair peaked with the onset of the pandemic. In the first lockdown, big Henry became the closest thing Jake had to a friend of his own size. When he accidentally bumped into the vacuum with his mini pushchair, he reached into his toy doctor’s kit for his wooden stethoscope. He began to watch Henry content on YouTube, including earnest reviews by vacuum influencers. His infatuation is not surprising; Henry looks like a giant toy. But the strength of the bond, which rivals only Jake’s love of his stuffed dog, Doggy, got me wondering about Henry’s backstory. I realised I knew nothing about him. I began firing off emails to Numatic, a company I had not even known was British.

Back in Somerset, Henry’s creator fills me in on his origin story. Duncan, who was born in 1939, spent much of his childhood in Vienna, where his father had been posted after the war to help build a police force. He moved back to Somerset at 16, got some O-levels and joined the merchant navy. A naval friend then got him a job at Powrmatic, a company in east London that made oil-fired heaters. Duncan, a natural salesman, ended up running the business until he left to launch Numatic in 1969. He had spotted a gap in the market for a sturdy, reliable cleaner to suck soot and muck out of coal- and gas-fired boilers.

The vacuum industry had been growing since the early 1900s, when British engineer Hubert Cecil Booth designed a horse-drawn machine whose long hoses would wind through the doors and windows of posh houses., a hose is coiled on a thick carpet like a benevolent snake, imaginary eyes attached to its steel mouth gazing up at a housemaid. “Friends” is the slogan.

A robot attaches Henry’s lid.Photograph: Ben Quinton/The GuardianJames Murray Spanglercreated a handheld vacuum using a fan motor in 1908. When he made one for his cousin Susan, her husband, a leather goods manufacturer named William Hoover, decided to buy the patent. The Hoover was the first successful domestic vacuum cleaner and – in the UK – a trademark that became synonymous with a product category (“hoover” is now headtopics.com

in the dictionaryas a verb). But it wasn’t until the 50s that the cleaners sucked their way into the homes of the masses. Dyson, a privately educated art student, began developing his first bagless cleaner in the late 70s, eventually shaking up the industry.

Duncan had no interest in the consumer market, nor did he have the money to make parts. He started with a small oil drum. In need of a lid in which to house the motor, he wondered if an upturned washing-up bowl might do the trick. “I took the drum round all the shops until I found a bowl that fitted,” he recalls. “Then I called the company to order 5,000 black washing-up bowls. They said, ‘No, no, you can’t have it in black – that will show the tidemark, it will look terrible.’ I told them I didn’t want them for washing up.” This Henry ancestor now collects dust in a corridor that serves as Numatic’s museum. The oil drum is red, and the black bowl is clamped on top. It has furniture castors for wheels. “The thread on the front today, where you put your hose, is still a two-inch oil drum thread,” Duncan says.

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You forgive its foibles because it’s doing a useful job. It's almost like walking a dogBy the mid-70s, after Numatic had found some success, Duncan was on a British stand at a Lisbon trade show. “It was as boring as sin,” he recalls. One evening, Duncan and one of his salesmen idly began to dress up their latest vacuum cleaner, first with a bit of ribbon, then with a union flag badge on what started to look a bit like a hat. They found some chalk and drew a crude smile under the hose outlet, which suddenly looked like a nose, then some eyes. Searching for a nickname that felt suitably British, they settled on Henry. “We put it over in the corner with all the other equipment and the next day people were laughing and pointing,” Duncan says. Back at Numatic, which then had a few dozen employees, Duncan asked his advertising guy to design a proper face for the cleaner. “Henry” remained an in-house nickname; the product still had Numatic printed above its eyes.

Humans far outnumber robots at the factory in Chard, Somerset.Photograph: Ben Quinton/The GuardianAt the next trade show, in Bahrain, nurses from the nearby Aramco oil company hospital asked to buy one for the children’s ward, to encourage recovering children to help with the cleaning (a strategy I may attempt at home at some point). “We were getting all these little reports and we thought, there’s something in this,” Duncan says. He increased production and, in 1981, Numatic added the Henry name to the black lid, which had begun to resemble a bowler hat. Duncan was still focused on the commercial market, but Henry was taking off; they heard that office cleaners were talking to Henry as a way to break up the grind of night shifts. “They took him to heart,” Duncan says.

Soon, big retailers started contacting Numatic: customers had seen Henry in schools and on building sites, and his reputation as a hardy friend of the trades had created a word-of-mouth cachet. Some also smelled a deal (Henry today costs a good £100 less than the cheapest Dyson). Henry hit the high street in 1985. Despite attempts by Numatic to discourage use of the word “hoover”, which is banned at company HQ, Henry quickly informally became known by the public as “Henry hoover”, marrying the brands in an alliterative union. Sales are growing at a rate of roughly a million each year, and now include Hettys and Georges,

among other siblings, in a range of colours. “We turned an inanimate object into an animate object,” Duncan says.Andrew Stephen, a professor of marketing from the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, is initially stumped when I ask him to assess Henry’s popular appeal. “I think there’s something about the product and branding that draws people to it rather than them getting caught up in what is normal, which is using price as a proxy signal for quality,” Stephen says.

“Timing might be part of it,” says Luke Harmer, an industrial designer and lecturer at Loughborough University. Henry arrived a few years after the first Star Wars film, with its hapless robots, including R2-D2. “I wonder if there was a connection to this product that provides a service and is slightly robotic and you forgive its foibles because it’s doing a useful job.” When Henry topples over, it’s hard to get cross with him. “It’s almost like walking a dog,” Harmer says.

Topples are not the only frustration for Henry owners. He gets caught on corners and has occasionally fallen down the stairs. Cramming his ungainly hose and wand into an overstuffed cupboard can feel like wrestling a snake into a bag. There are also average reviews for performance among the generally positive ones (though he gets the job done in my house).

Jake, meanwhile, is far from alone in his infatuation, presenting Numatic with passive marketing opportunities that suit its modesty – and save millions in advertising. In 2018, a Cardiff University student was forced by the council to cancel a Henry picnic when

37,000 people signed up to attendwith their vacuum cleaners. Henry’s appeal has gone global; Numatic increasingly exports its products. Duncan passes me a copy of “Henry in London”, a professionally produced photo book in which Henry tours famous sites. Three young Japanese women flew from Tokyo with a Henry to take the shots.

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