James B. Kirby (of Jim Kirby) (1884 - 1971) was an inventor of Scottish ancestry who lived in America and is mostly famous for inventing the Kirby vacuum cleaners although over 200 inventions are attributed to him.
Kirby was born on September 28, 1884, and it is known that his father was Great Lakes, marine engineer. They lived in Cleveland, Ohio, and while attending Lincoln High School James worked as a lamplighter. His job was to light and snuff gas streetlights. He learned about electricity by attending electricity classes at the Y.M.C.A. One of his first inventions was a massage the machine which was built for a man called Knocks who ordered it. The massaging machine was sold between 1903 and 1904 to P. A. Geier, who manufactured and sold it under the name “Royal”. His next invention was one of the first answering machines ordered by a certain doctor from Cleveland. Its central part was based on the Edison’s phonograph which was controlled electrically and informed the caller that doctor is not in and if they leave a message it will be recorded and played when the doctor returns. Doctor later patented this machine.
In 1906, inspired by a wagon-mounted vacuum cleaner, James Kirby decided to make a smaller variant that could be used by one person and be more portable. His first vacuum cleaner was called the "Domestic Cyclone" and it used water as a filter for dust. It needed two buckets of water for one filling, and it needed to be frequently emptied. It was marketed by Domestic Vacuum Cleaner Company and sold in two sub-variants. One was sold for $25 and was a model that had to be pumped by hand while the other had an electric motor and was sold for $85. These models worked but emptying dirty water was complicated and messy, so Kirby made next model in 1907 which used a cloth bag that caught the dirt and filtered the air.
Kirby’s vacuum cleaners were a step forward regarding the box-type vacuum cleaners that started appearing at that time because they were lighter and had attachments that allowed for more efficient cleaning. After these first models, Kirby met Frantz brothers, Edward, Clarence, and Walter. The first two were in the building materials business while Walter was a mechanic. They obtained rights to make and sell Kirby’s vacuums, and they made them in different variants. Model B, for instance, was sold only with narrow suction nozzle while a Model C had a wide nozzle and a brush. Model D was made with an air-driven brush. From 1919 Kirby worked with George Scott and Carl Fetzer from Scott & Fetzer Company. They were blacksmith company in Cleveland, that made military armaments during the First World war and the peace made improved Kirby’s vacuum cleaners. Since 1935, they make and sell vacuum cleaners under James B. Kirby’s name.
Jim Kirby spent his last years on his farm in Richfield, Ohio, and working between Scott & Fetzer and the Frantz Brothers.