High Tech Tackles Dust and Dirt

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I LIKE to think of myself as techno-casual rather than techno-stressed. And certainly not as techno-hyper. Heaven forfend!

All the same, kicking against the pricks (to borrow a phrase from an ancient technology) is undoubtedly awkward, and resisting technology is like King Canute commanding the waves. Technology, in its ever-advancing waves, is here. It is also there. And everywhere.

Is there anything that escapes from technology? My new socks, for instance, all the way from Maine to my very own footstep, are the result of (I quote) a "quantum leap in sock technology." They have "optimum breathability" and an "insulating zone." They are "engineered" by a company that "bypasses the sock industry's common cylinder-knit process." Yes, yes.

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When applied to a vacuum cleaner, such techno-language seems more appropriate - though as an invention this is not what you'd call new hat. The vacuum cleaner will be a century old in six years' time.

What can the world have been like before 1901, when Hubert Cecil Booth dreamed up this dust-sucking device for the benefit of the race? Booth was a clever chap (he was a Scot, of course), though I do not know what his original machine was like.

In comparison, the first electrically powered vacuums I was aware of as a child were, presumably, ultra-sophisticated technologically speaking - though today they are seen in museums. Those "hoovers" were strange, darksome, primitive affairs with sturdy canvas bags dangling from a spring attached to the handle like a cow's udder. When switched on, they roared into ferocious life, and the bag bulged with air. Their high-pitched wailing (an unforgettable scream from which no degree of technology has yet contrived relief) was accompanied by an aroma comprised of hot dust, hot cord, and hot operator. Come to think of it, the daily "hoovering" event bore a dire resemblance to the bagpipes.

What started me on all of this is the arrival in our house of a brand-new vacuum cleaner. Perhaps "invasion" would be a better word, since the Dyson Dual Cyclone (DC01 for short) - an upright in gray and yellow - has all the appearance of a machine-creature from outer space. The DC02, which is a squat model designed to sit comfortably on carpeted stairs, looks as if it were a relation of R2D2 in "Star Wars": A machine you can feel affection for, like a small canine. (But we fell for the DC01 even though our stairs are not carpeted.) It is like a cross between a model of a 1930s skyscraper and a kitchen food processor, though obviously a vacuum cleaner at heart.

My wife prefers not to take me shopping. I embarrass her, she claims. I suppose I do - but when you have certain well-tried hobby horses, they will out somehow.

One of my hobby horses - as I informed the pleasant person in the electrical appliances showroom - is asking if I can try out something I might like to buy, before buying it. I conceded that an electric blanket (which we had gone there to purchase) posed certain logistical problems. (In the event, the one we bought was both ineffective and short, and we had to buy another one, and with no refund).

If you like the look of, say, an electric kettle, wouldn't you think it reasonable to investigate, before you take it home, whether it pours water without spilling or dripping? Yet such a request is invariably met with baffled incredulity.

At the back of this, I believe, is a commonly held confusion about design. Ideally, designers concern themselves with both appearance and function. I take it as a given that one should not buy something that looks badly designed. Yet looks are no more than half the story. Nevertheless, we do tend to think that we know by looking at a manufactured object whether it is well or poorly designed, and (I speak for myself) accept the idea of buying it on the strength of appearance rather than function. Kettles are one of the best examples. And pitchers. The most superbly simple, even functional-looking, often turn out to drip and slosh and slurp.

The Dyson vacuum cleaner is, well, eye-catching. Only recently available on the mass market, this machine has an exclusive ancestor designed by James Dyson way back in 1979 called the "G Force" (see Ian Dobbie's remarkable picture). It was manufactured by Apex Inc., in Japan. Produced in limited numbers, it became a status symbol. A vacuum cleaner a status symbol - marvelous! It sold for 1,200.

The DC01 is not quite so expensive and in the last year has become a fast-selling item in Britain. When we asked if we could "try it out" in the showroom, the assistant rummaged around for a wall socket and plugged it in. Not only did it whirr impressively, it picked up quite a deal of detritus from the showroom floor. (We knew, because we could see it accumulating inside the machine's transparent plastic chamber.)

"The dual cyclone," says the leaflet sold with it, is "first in a range of models which are the only vacuum cleaners in the world to maintain 100 percent suction, 100 percent of the time." It "is the first breakthrough in technology since the invention of the vacuum cleaner in 1901.

"The traditional bag has been replaced by two cyclone chambers which cannot clog with dust. Within them air spins at up to 924 m.p.h., generating centrifugal forces that extract dust particles as small as 0.01 microns...."

Some of our friends think we have turned into cuckoos, so enthusiastic are we about the Dyson dual cyclone machine. They gaze into the distance when we eulogize.

My wife says she is ready to appear on TV saying how our Dyson has "transformed her life," or whatever. Our old vacuum has been relegated unceremoniously to the basement, a dodo. Our carpets are shades lighter. Shades.

"And what do you plan to do this afternoon?" one asks one's better half.

"I think," she replies as if delight is in store, "I'll just do a spot of Dysoning."

Technology is wonderful. I love it. (When it works.)

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