The Young & The Cordless: The Story of Our Robot Maid

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/

The dawn of the internet, the mobile phone, the widescreen TV, and the Apple watch are just a few of the technological advances I’ve seen in my lifetime, but nothing has stirred my futuristic soul quite as much as the release of the iRobot Roomba in 2002. As a child, my favorite cartoon was “The Jetsons,” and for decades I dreamed of owning my own domestic droid like Rosie, the family’s Jane-of-all-trades metallic maid. The real-life Roomba was simplistic compared to Rosie, resembling a large Frisbee on wheels, but despite its humble appearance, the Roomba’s introduction sparked the world’s love affair with autonomous robotic vacuum cleaners.

My wife, Sophia, and I were two of the inaugural owners of a Roomba due to a chance encounter with an iRobot salesman at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2001. It took just one look at this new wheeled wonder-product, and we were hooked. Cleaning the house had been causing tension in our marriage, and one of our least favorite tasks was vacuuming. The cord was forever twisting or pulling out of the outlet, and cleaning the bag inside our ancient Hoover vacuum was a dusty mess that always made us sneeze.

But if a robot could vacuum for us? BINGO.

Slowly, his presence became an invasion on our privacy. “Put on your bra,” I once told Sophia, “the Roomba is here.” 

Many technology gurus warn against buying the first version of any new technology because it is untested in real life and, frequently, the product doesn’t work as advertised. We ignored the negative advice, however, and jumped into buying a Roomba, sight unseen. At first, we were thrilled by our very own robot vacuum, with its electronic sensors that allowed it to sense dirt and change directions with ease when encountering obstacles.

But we quickly discovered that our Roomba was to be a stubborn pet. Despite the promises to negotiate even the trickiest floor plans, our pet simply refused to change directions. He enjoyed lingering in the bar area near our dinette, jamming himself between the stools and whirring in pleasure, vibrating like a monstrous sex toy or a dog in heat.

No matter how many times we carried the robot away from his comfort zone under the bar, he would return like a prodigal son to that welcoming cage of metal legs. Even when we placed him in the farthest corner of another room, he bee-lined back to the bar as if desperate for a martini. We ultimately caved and removed the stools, storing them in the garage. We (and our décor) were now working for the robot.

With our Roomba free to clean the house, he actually did a thorough, albeit exhaustive, job. (Was it supposed to take three hours to vacuum our tiny living room?) He would start the task by surveying the scene, bumping blindly into the coffee table and couch as he mapped the layout. Then he would start the vacuuming process, moving in slow, parallel lines back and forth across the floor. Our methodical Roomba was noisy, so we were unable to watch TV or even talk during his office hours.

Slowly, his presence became an invasion on our privacy. “Put on your bra,” I once told Sophia, “the Roomba is here.”

We began making a habit of going to the movies on Vacuuming Day to escape the tyranny of the Roomba’s whirring, clicking sweeps. One day, we returned home to find my mother sitting on the front lawn. She had made a surprise visit, entering the house with her own key.

“Why are you sitting out here?” I asked.

“Some…some space THING…attacked my foot on the floor of your living room, and I almost had a heart attack!” she gasped.

Much like HAL in “2001, A Space Odyssey,” our Roomba had morphed from helpful robot to attempted assassin.

In time, though, we tamed our pet and learned to accept his quirks. He was slow and stubborn, but did a great job cleaning our floors. Arguments about vacuuming became a thing of the past, and my marriage flourished. Sophia and I began to see the Roomba as part of our family.

Then one fateful day in August, there was a heat wave in Los Angeles. We didn’t have air conditioning, so we opened up the door to the back patio. On Vacumming Day, we turned on our Roomba and headed out to see a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock. Thanks to modern technology, life was good.

When we returned home, the living room was spotless but the Roomba was nowhere to be seen. We searched and searched, but the only logical explanation was that he had wheeled his way out to the patio, pushed open the door that lead into the back alley, and disappeared down the street.

We were beside ourselves. Had he been unhappy? Did we not show our Roomba enough gratitude for his hard work? Was he bored vacuuming the same living room over and over again, sliding back and forth like a programmed machine?

Sophia and I put up fliers all over the neighborhood: “Missing Roomba. Call us!” We waited for his return, but it never came.

Within a week, without our robot maid, Sophia and I were back to fighting over the vacuuming. This situation remained for several years later, until we bought ourselves a bagless Dyson. It helped, but we knew in our hearts nothing would ever compare to stubbornly industrious little Roomba.

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Originally published June 9, 2015

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One Response

  1. kenju

    I always wanted a Roomba, but I’m sure they all have quirks to stymie them, like the barstools did for yours. I suspect that whoever found your Roomba was very happy! I do believe that hiring a maid service is the way to go.


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