Climbing a building with “vacuum gloves”

MAKE subscriber Matthew Sylvester sent us this video of BBC TV presenter Jem Stansfield seeming to climb the side of one of the broadcaster’s buildings using a very funky homemade contraption based on a vacuum cleaner. The “stunt” was done as a promo for the upcoming BBC show Bang Goes the Theory [cough… Mythbusters].

And speaking of Mythbusters, they built a similar rig, with far more serious components, and had very lackluster results. This video makes it look suspiciously easy. Hmmm. It’d be interesting to see if he could even lift himself off of the ground without the aid of the climbing harness.

Man climbs building with vacuum gloves

26 thoughts on “Climbing a building with “vacuum gloves”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The fact that the myth buster people had trouble doing this in no way indicates that it’s difficult.

    The only thing that the myth busters ever prove is that they can or can not do something, not that it can or can not be done. I’m sure they are great special effects people but that does not mean that they have the capability or the knowledge to test the things they claim.

    1. ehrichweiss says:

      I agree there fully. I’ve watched enough episodes that I have seen enough of them poo-poo an experiment only to have it proven by some of their fans; people only watch because they’ll blow things up…and to see Kari’s boobs(admit it).

      My favorite to date is the Tesla earthquake machine that also has close ties to the “marching over a bridge” episode because they said it wasn’t even plausible even though a similar device is already in existence and being used in demolition; it’s called a servo unit; I’ve seen them rattle the windows of homes 3+ miles away from the site they were being used so imagine what they did to the buildings next to them.

      Second place goes to their miserable failure at proving that a combustion engine could be made from gunpowder. That one they didn’t even attempt to re-engineer their setup, they just dumped on the idea without sticking to their supposed “motto” of making it work.

      1. DU says:

        …it’s called a servo unit; I’ve seen them rattle the windows of homes 3+ miles away from the site they were being used so imagine what they did to the buildings next to them.

        The top hit for “‘servo unit’ demolition” is you, making the same claim 18 months ago in another forum. A followup asks you for a link and none is forthcoming.

        1. DU says:

          Really interested in this “servo unit” but you’ve never given a link to it and Google’s never heard of it.

  2. Simon says:

    The video links on their own page don’t work for me (not in the right area apparently – I am in the colonies damn-it!) but the BBC News one did.

    It looks like a lot of his weight is supported by the safety ropes maybe? I don’t think he is climbing with all his weight on the vacuum pads. When they give way at the top he doesn’t seem to drop very far at all.

    Funny, it’s usually the yanks who rip off the brits shows. Be interesting to see what this one is like. One of the things I like about Mythbusters is Adam and Jamie are just themselves (although as the show goes on that seems to change a bit) and they are interesting characters to watch.

    I have been re-watching Tim Hunkin’s Secret Life of Machines recently and he is the same. He’s not a presenter or TV personality. He’s just a interesting, knowledgeable guy to watch.

    I can’t help wondering if other similar shows take the approach of the execs choosing the cast. I can see how that goes. Right, we need a smart but hip young guy and we need the obviously geeky but likable one who can build anything. We have to have someone who can clown about and oh, and we better through in a hot but smart chick too…

    Will have to check it out when it starts.

  3. Janek Mann says:

    The system here looks better than the one on mythbusters… the “suction cups” have a larger surface area and having the footholds linked directly to the devices operated by the hands makes for an easier to operate system, which apparently was the main downfall of the mythbusters system: (though it did work but was not practical for the myth tested).

    A more serious version has been developed but given there have been no updates since ’02 I guess it wasn’t really practical either:

    Not that that version only allows 1 out of 4 pads to be released at a time to have a safety backup. Nonetheless it looks like the test versions were always operated with a safety rope.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m not sure I completely buy it either. However, note that he’s not putting his full weight on the “gloves”. What he’s doing is using them to hold to the building while the work happens with his feet. He’s using the climbing shoes which are tacky and stick to surfaces, thus he’s able to do the real work with the strength in his legs while his arms and the vacuum gloves seem to just steady him.

    1. DU says:

      BBC hasn’t proved it. Jem has only proved that you can stick thing together using a vacuum, which is a known result. He wasn’t lifting himself. Furthermore, he wasn’t climbing an arbitrary building. He picked a particular one that happened to be unnaturally smooth.

    2. Johnh says:

      Yes, i agree he is using his magic climbing shoes.
      Dumbest comment ever!
      Climbing shoes are not sticky.
      Thay are just soft rubber and will not stick to a shiny smooth surface.

  5. SKR says:

    to the comment about all the work being done with the feet, that is just the way ascenders work. If you look in the lower left hand corner of the video, you will see a climber with mechanical ascenders. You just shift your weight back and forth and use your hands to move the unweighted side.

  6. Prod team says:


    Just to say I work on the show and the gloves will work on almost any vertical surface including brick. You can lift and pull yourself up on the gloves.

    Friction is very important (the seals on the gloves are made with bike inner tubes) but the suction from two 1200w motors is also vital. You don’t need to use your feet, but having somewhere to put your toes and take your weight makes for a much neater system.

    We top roped him because if the motors burnt out he would have died.

    Keep watching the show for more crazy inventions and great science content.

    All the best,

    Producer Nick

  7. Dustbuster7000 says:

    Ok, this looks plausible, but its difficult from this video alone to assess it. The ideal way to assess it would be to have him go sideways, around the base of the building without the safety ropes. That way you could tell if all his weight was really being held by the vacuum gloves and he wouldn’t be in any real danger.

    To claims about doing all the work with his feet or that he didn’t fall very far when the gloves slipped: first, he’s not using his feet to climb the wall, the boots rarely touch the wall in any meaningful way and the smooth surface would offer little in the way of traction. He *is* using his legs to make all the upwards progress, but not through foot/wall friction. Second, it is usual in a top-rope belay situation like the one shown for there to be very little slack in the rope, the belayer keeps the rope quite tight and generally the climber will only fall by the amount of stretch in the rope. There is a big difference between a tight belay and someone pulling you up with wall with the rope.

    But we don’t really know much about what is attached to the belaying rope and this means we can’t be sure about how much of his weight is carried by the rope versus the vacuum gloves. My feeling from looking at the video and my experiences with top-rope climbing suggest that this is legit, at least somewhat, but editing and what’s happening off-camera mean that we can’t be sure.

    Pretty cool if it is legit though

    1. Anonymous says:

      If you liked the Vacuum Gloves please see the next build – a hybrid rocket made of toffee. It worked like a dream. Makezine rocks.

      Producer Nick

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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