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The History of Air Purifiers

It is probably safe to say, many consumers never really thought much about how air purifiers came into existence. To get a better understanding of “how” they were developed, we will first cover “why” they were developed.

Why Air Purifiers were Developed

The purpose of an air purifier is to remove various types of irritating and harmful contaminants from the air. These contaminants can be in the form of dust, pollen, pet dander, dust mites, mold spores or smoke. The main users of air purifiers are allergy sufferers and people with respiratory problems, such as asthma. To provide a form of relief for these users, inventors took many years to create and test various types of air purifier systems for functionality, reliability and safety.

How Air Purifiers were Developed

16th Century

The first concept of an air-purifier-type of product began as a protective air respirator that was worn over a person’s mouth and nose. Its purpose was to filter air breathed through the unit, thereby protecting the wearer from inhaling any gases, fumes, vapors or harmful dusts particles. This concept was developed as far back as the 16th century.


Leonardo da Vinci had an idea that water-dipped, fine woven cloth materials could protect sailors from breathing in any toxic powders used as weapons. In 1799, Alexander von Humboldt came up with a primitive sort of respirator that he used while he was a mining engineer. In fact, the very first air-purifying respirator developed by Lewis P. Haslett, received its patent in 1848. His “Haslett's Lung Protector” used moistened wool or a similar material, along with a one-way clapper valve, to filter dust from the air.

In 1879, a cup-shaped mask that eventually became widely used for industrial use was patented by Hutson Hurd. The Hurd’s H.S. Cover Company, which manufactured these masks, was still doing business into the 1970s.


As time progressed, development of more effective types of air filtering devices became more prominent. During the late 1940s, the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission developed the first HEPA filters to aid in the protection against radioactive chemical warfare agents. These “collective protector filters,” as they were initially called, were later renamed “HEPA filters,” which was an acronym for “High-Efficiency Particulate Air” filter units.

These HEPA filters were designed with rigid frames and had a 99.97 percent “minimum particle removal efficiency” rate, while maintaining a maximum resistance of “one inches water gauge” when operated at a specific rate of airflow capacity. They were being used during the development of the atomic bomb as part of the “Manhattan Project.” After World War II, the government declassified the HEPA filter technology, allowing it to be used for commercial and residential use.

HEPA filters originally contained Bolivian or African asbestos components, which were imported into the United States. Due to the concern of the future availability of these asbestos papers, the U.S. government contacted Arthur D. Little, Inc. to develop a domestically available filter paper with equal or better filtration performance. They developed the first noncombustible “absolute filter” which was completely fire resistant.

As time went on, there was growing concern over the toxicity of inhaled asbestos fibers. Eventually, the commercial use of asbestos-containing filters was abandoned. Arthur D. Little, Inc. then created a new type of filter that was a noncombustible absolute filter. This filter was promising; however, it was not in existence for too long. It was heavy, produced air leaks and its cement adhesive made the filter paper brittle. By 1957, three different companies were producing absolute filters.

After the Atomic Energy Commission began receiving complaints from its own facilities that defective filters were being delivered, they started inspecting and testing randomly selected filters. It was found that most of the selected filters had defects right out of the box. In the 1960s, this led to the Atomic Energy Commission introducing quality assurance testing of these products.

The Emergence of the First Air Purifier

In 1963, Klaus Hammes, a German mechanical engineer, along with his brother, Manfred, created a “simple filter system” for German residential users. This system was comprised of a filter pad that used magnets to attach it to the air outlet of residential coal ovens. The filter was designed to trap the dust found in the cold air as it heated and rose through the oven. It helped reduce the “black dust build-up” found on the walls of the ovens. This became the first air purifier system of its kind that could be used inside consumer households. Over time, consumers noticed that the filter system also reduced asthma flare-ups and relieved allergy symptoms.

Throughout the rest of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Klaus Hammes developed upon his initial filter system. He adapted it further to work with other heating systems, radiators and “forced air heating and cooling systems.” With the help of his son Frank, they introduced a cabin air filter to Mercedes-Benz in North America to be used in their automobiles. Later, Frank focused on room air cleaners powered by fans.

In 1994, Frank worked intensely with a team of engineers from Switzerland and Germany, taking four years to research and build the first, highly effective consumer compact air purifiers in the world. In the spring of 1998, the first “IQAir HealthPro Plus” room air purifier left its European production line. The IQAir HealthPro Plus had beat out it competitors and instantly became a successful product for relieving asthma and allergy symptoms. By the year 2000, it was officially released in the United States.

Modern Air Purifiers

Today, air purifier systems for home and commercial use are readily available and the best ones are generally recommended for helping with symptoms of asthma and allergy. There are many variations of air purifiers on the market. Following are a few of the more common types.

Air purifiers have gone through a long process of development over many centuries. From the basic over the mouth and nose device, to the advanced self-standing systems used today. As environmental pollutants continue to be a by-product of technological advances, air purifiers will continue to be a highly needed product. 

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