Steering sweepers through time

As Johnston Sweepers celebrates its 50th anniversary, Graham Howlett looks back at the history of road sweepers and how they have evolved over time.

As the industry celebrates 50 years of the suction road sweeper this year, it is a good time to look back over sweeping in Britain and the way in which this rather small but highly specialised industry has developed.

Machines to sweep roads have been around since the 1930s when J M Johnston’s road construction company produced its first mechanical road surface cleaner in 1937. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s most truck sweepers used the mechanical principal, but in the early 1950s, Johnston Brothers started to develop a machine to recover surplus chippings following road dressing, the idea being to recycle the chippings and use them elsewhere.

Initially, the designers came up with a machine called the Suction Scavenger, which was essentially a suction sweeper mounted on a trailer and connected to the truck via a pipe. But in 1958 engineers hit on the idea of mounting the sweeping equipment directly onto the back of a lorry – and the modern day truck-mounted suction sweeper was born.

The start of suction

The new machine was launched at the Public Works Exhibition in 1960 and was a commercial success from the very start. Pretty soon, the old-style mechanical sweepers had fallen from grace and virtually everyone was switching over to the new suction design. Suction became the preferred sweeping method as running and repair costs were lower, and because the fine dust and sand that mechanicals left behind were now picked up with ease.

Throughout these early years Lacre and Johnston were the principal truck sweeper manufacturers in the UK, Lacre having bought a license to build truck sweepers from Schorling in Germany. Roads in Britain were pretty much all swept by Lacre and Johnston, but new, smaller machines emerged in the 1960s to sweep Britain’s pavements, and Babcock Sweepers was the dominant player in this sector.

Babcock’s pavement sweeper was a three-wheeled mechanical machine, based on a Hillman Imp driveline, and it had virtually the entire UK pavement sweeper market to itself. When Johnston acquired Babcock in 1986, engineers from the two companies moved the whole design forward, developing the vacuum compact sweeper as we know it today. By now, the German-owned Schmidt company had also started producing pavement sweepers from its plant in Peterborough, and the whole compact market rapidly developed.

Keep on truckin’

Meanwhile, truck sweepers were moving on apace. Three former Babcock staff, including Roger Hoadley, Babcock’s technical man, branched out in the early 1980s to set up Scarab, initially producing a litter collector which later developed into the Scarab Minor, based on the East German Multicar. Scarab went on to pioneer the hydrostatic drive sweeper, while Johnston developed the twin engine design.

While the fundamental principals of sweeper design have remained largely unchanged over the years, the machines themselves have moved on leaps and bounds in terms of technical finesse and capabilities. The constant strive for highest performance, least noise and dust pollution, best reliability and lowest cost of ownership has led to a whole host of technical advancements designed to improve the process.

Drive-by wire technology and multiplex control systems have moved the operation of machines on to new levels, while environmental considerations have led to the development of water re-circulation, PM10 certification and noise reduction systems, designed to help authorities to meet their NI 185 targets. Sweeper functions have also surged forward in response to the need for wider applications and multitask capability. High pressure wash systems, mud scrapers, spill recovery systems, edge cutters and weed rippers, rubber removal – and even de-mountable sweepers to allow for gritters and snow ploughs – all add to the versatility and functionality of today’s sweepers.

They may not be sexy or glamorous, but sweepers are certainly one of the most complex pieces of machinery on the roads, encompassing every aspect of engineering and design – including hydraulics, pneumatics, electronics and aerodynamics. As for the future of road sweepers, this will be steered as ever by the customer. With targets on cleanliness, air quality, body vibration, and carbon footprint being legislation driven and pressures on productivity, operating costs, ergonomics and value being operationally driven, we are heading for exciting times in the sweeper industry as manufacturers balance these objectives into new designs that also are pleasing to the eye.

Graham Howlett is sales manager at Johnston Sweepers

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