James Dyson began his remarkable career the same way many innovators do: He was frustrated by a problem and set out to find a solution. The difference between Dyson and most inventors, however, was his almost fanatical conviction to see his ideas successfully developed. This trait became markedly apparent the day he dismantled an expensive Hoover to find out why it wasn’t effectively picking up debris and began a five-year pursuit of the perfect vacuum cleaner.
Dyson’s name is now synonymous with the results of his dogged determination—the DC01—as well as the multi-billion dollar company that was founded upon it, but the early years of Dyson’s inventor journey were filled with at least as many failures as successes, which Dyson takes in stride. “Failure is the key to success,” Dyson says. “Success is made of 99 percent failure.”
A former student at Byam Shaw School of Art, where he met his wife, Dierdre, and a graduate of London’s prestigious Royal College of Art, Dyson studied interior and furniture design before turning his attention to industrial design. Those three disciplines—art, design and engineering—provided Dyson the perfect confluence of talent and skill to develop products that were aesthetically pleasing as well as functionally engineered.
Dyson began his career at Rotork, where he helped develop the Sea Truck, a high-speed, flat-hulled fiberglass landing craft that could deliver cargo where no harbor or jetty was available. In 1975, he won the first of many design awards, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Special Prize, for the Sea Truck.
Dyson struck out on his own in 1974 with his Ballbarrow, the first major update to the wheelbarrow since medieval times. An avid gardener, Dyson’s frustration with his wheelbarrow getting stuck in the mud led him to develop the improved design, which featured a large plastic ball rather than a wheel in the front. The ball provided greater stability for carrying heavy loads and increased maneuverability across rough terrain.
The Ballbarrow led to the establishment of Dyson’s first company, his second honor, Building Design magazine’s Innovation Award in 1977, and the understanding that a simple ball was far more than a plaything. It also taught Dyson the value of a patent. Naively, Dyson had assigned his patent to the company he formed with partners. Despite the popularity of the Ballbarrow, he made little money from the invention after he was squeezed out of his ownership stake in the business over a marketing strategy dispute.
The lessons learned from this experience proved invaluable when, in 1979, Dyson began work on the invention that would make his an international household name. Dyson was in the process of renovating a home and cleaning debris when he decided to take his expensive vacuum apart to see why it was leaving dust and dirt behind.
He found the motor design had inherent flaws that caused clogging and reduced suction. In 1979, he established Dyson Ltd. and focused his attention on reinventing the household cleaner.
“He would be in the cellar day after day, night after night, trying to form a perfect plastic cone (with a machine). That’s my most vivid memory—of him losing his rag each time it went wrong. But then I also remember when he came upstairs with the perfect one,” his son Jake said in an April 2015 interview in FT Magazine.
Over a grueling five-year period, during which Dierdre supported her husband and their three children as a teacher, Dyson built 5,127 prototypes before he realized success. His reward, in 1983, was the DC01, a bagless vacuum cleaner with Dual Cyclonic technology that relied on centrifugal force to separate the dirt from the air and revolutionized the vacuum cleaner industry.
Yet, Dyson’s struggle was far from over. The industry was not ready for such an unusual dirt-sucking beast. For several years, Dyson canvassed his technology to major vacuum manufacturers, who scoffed at the bagless vacuum. Replacement bags were profit generators, and company executives didn’t think consumers would want to see the dirt and dust a vacuum collected.
“Say Goodbye to the Bag”
In 1986, Dyson decided to take his vacuum to Japan, where he managed to break into the market. Encouraged by this success, in 1993 Dyson opened a research center and factory in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. Two years later, and 10 years after his initial idea, he managed his first breakthrough in the United Kingdom with a television commercial that featured him telling viewers to “say goodbye to the bag.” Consumers took Dyson at his word, and in 1995, the DC01 became the best-selling vacuum in the United Kingdom. The product was launched in the United States in 2002 with instant success.
Dyson followed his original vacuum cleaner with a series of improved vacuum designs and new household appliance technology—from the commercially unsuccessful CR01, a washing machine with two drums spinning in opposite directions with a 15-minute cycle—to the highly popular Dyson Airblade, a hand dryer that uses 420-mph sheets of air to scrape water off hands, like a windshield wiper.
One of Dyson’s most recent developments is the Dyson Air-Multiplier, which uses Air Multiplier™ technology to amplify air 15 times, expelling 119 gallons of cool, smooth, uninterrupted air—with no blades. Dyson recently entered the highly competitive robotic vacuum cleaner market with the 360 Eye. It features 360-degree scanning and mapping for navigation, cyclonic dust separation, a custom-designed digital motor for high suction, tank treads for traction and a user interface via an app.
Since the introduction of the DCO1 in 1993, Dyson has received numerous awards including Design Week’s Designer of the Decade in 1999 and 2000, the Japan Industrial Designer’s Association award in 2002, The Queen’s Award for Innovation in 2004 and The Queens Award for International Trade in 2006.
The University of Bath presented Dyson with an honorary doctorate degree in engineering, and he was selected as a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2005. One of Dyson’s greatest honors was his appointment as a Knight Bachelor in the 2007 New Year Honors. In addition, he has served as provost of the Royal College of Art since 2011.
Over the course of 22 years, Dyson’s company has literally transformed from one man working in his basement to a global technology firm that employs thousands of workers. Sir James Dyson continues to work alongside his team of nearly 4,000 engineers in the development of new ideas and products. His interest in the engineering field and the decline of engineering graduates, who are vital to the cause of innovation, have spurred him to commit millions of pounds to U.K. universities, including £12 million to the Imperial College London to fund a school of design engineering.
Amidst the company’s exponential growth, Dyson has also returned to his roots, so to speak. With the purchase of a 3,000-acre estate in Lincolnshire his total land ownership in England is now 25,000 acres—more than Queen Elizabeth. His farm in Lincolnshire even supplies vegetables to local markets. “I grew up in agricultural north Norfolk. As a schoolboy and college student, I used to spend my holidays working on local farms harvesting potatoes, sprouts, parsley and blackcurrants,” he said in an interview with The Telegraph. Perhaps Dyson’s next big thing is related to farming. Dirt seems to course through his veins.
Inventors Digest recently had the opportunity to ask the inventor, entrepreneur, industrialist and philanthropist about his inspiration, his philosophies and his goals for the James Dyson Foundation.
Inventors Digest: What were your favorite hobbies as a young boy?
James Dyson: I volunteered to play the bassoon in the school orchestra. When I first saw the instrument, I was horrified. It was introduced as “the most difficult instrument in the orchestra,” which, of course, meant I had to conquer it. Unfortunately, I have now had to put bassoon playing on the back burner, but it was good fun.
I also enjoyed long-distance running. I was quite good by time I turned 14. I would get up at six in the morning and run on the beach in Norfolk. Running taught me the physical and psychological strength that keeps you competitive.
ID: How and why did you switch from furniture and
interior design to engineering? Who inspired you?
JD: I wanted to design with functional materials. At the Royal College of Art I took the leap from furniture design to industrial design, which was a chance to get my hands dirty, working with plastic and stainless steel. And so began a lifelong passion for functional design. After graduating from the RCA, I was employed by local engineering company Rotork, where I designed my first project, the Sea Truck—a high-speed landing craft. Working alongside Jeremy Fry, I learnt to adopt an Edisonian approach to design, making prototype after prototype until you get it right.
ID: What were the main lessons you taught your children about life? Inventing?
JD: I admire the idea of wrong thinking, so I’ve always encouraged them to go out and try their own ideas, even if they’re not particularly conventional. Especially if they’re not conventional! I want my children to be free thinkers, and I happen to think they’re doing quite well at each following their own paths—an inventor and engineer, a record label executive and a fashion designer.
ID: What is the most important characteristic of an innovator?
JD: The most important qualities to me are a willingness to try new things, acceptance of failure when it comes, and perseverance to keep trying.
ID: What inspires you to innovate?
JD: To me, nothing beats the thrill of invention. Letting people go out and try their ideas, getting them totally involved and unleashing new thinking. They’re not bound to any methodology; in fact, the stranger and riskier, the better.
ID: Do you invent to solve problems or create opportunities?
JD: At Dyson, it’s not as clear-cut as that. If we can make something that already exists even better, we will. And we have large, dedicated teams working on advancing our current machines. But our focus is on also inventing and investing in new technologies, even when we aren’t sure of their application yet.
ID: What fascinated you so about vacuum cleaners?
JD: It was more frustration that proved the mother of invention. In the late ‘70s, I bought a top-of-the-range vacuum cleaner and was immediately frustrated with how it instantly clogged and lost suction. My engineer’s instinct kicked in. I ripped open the bag and noticed a layer of dust inside clogging the pores. This is a fundamental flaw with vacuum technology, which went undetected and unchallenged for almost 100 years. I was determined to develop a better vacuum cleaner that worked properly. During a chance visit to a local sawmill, I noticed how the sawdust was removed from the air by large industrial cyclones. So I took the vacuum apart and rigged it up with a cardboard cyclone. While it didn’t look great, it picked up more dust than the old bagged machine. After 5,127 prototypes, I had the first working vacuum cleaner with no bag.
ID: What is your design process, in general?
JD: It all begins with a problem. You see a problem you can solve, and you proceed in one of two ways: You either develop a technology to solve that problem or you happen to come across a technology that solves that problem. Either way, the key is having the freedom to tinker, test, prototype, fail and try again. You never really know what working on one problem may lead to; often it can become the solution to something completely different and very exciting. That’s part of the fun. Our Airblade hand dryer is a prime example: A failed application in one technology led to a fast and more effective hand-drying solution.
ID: Do you have a favorite method for developing prototypes?
JD: When I first started inventing, the best way to make prototypes was with cardboard. Today, it’s a bit more advanced—CAD and SLS modeling. But I encourage my engineers to start with a cardboard prototype and see if it (the idea) will actually work. It’s not always just thinking of an idea; you have to make sure it can work.
ID: How many patents do you own?
JD: Dyson holds over 3,000 patents for over 500 inventions, but that number grows almost daily.
ID: What advice can you give readers about marketing products?
JD: I’m no marketer; I’d rather be in the lab, but there was a time I didn’t have that luxury. Once I had my first cyclonic vacuum cleaner, I traipsed around the globe trying to convince vacuum manufacturers to take on my idea. No one would have it. I was told people don’t want to see their dust in the bin. I was laughed off by every vacuum and appliance company you could think of. So I decided to do it by myself—like any other vacuum cleaner salesman. I showed people what it did, why it was different and why it performed better. I didn’t give up until I sold my first model in Japan. Today, I live by the same mantra. Take risks, fail. Then try again. Don’t give up on an idea you believe in.
ID: Are there “green” products in your future?
JD: Engineers don’t start out to make something “green.” They set out to make something that works better. To really achieve that goal, you have to do more with less. I took that approach over 20 years ago when designing our first vacuum. And we take that same approach today. For us, it’s not green engineering, but rather lean engineering. We need real advancements in sustainable design, not just green products.
ID: Are you working on any new projects you can discuss?
JD: There would be too many to relay, even if my IP lawyers would let me. We work on a pipeline of technology that spans 25 years. Some of the projects make it to market; some don’t. But we learn from the failures. Right now a lot of my focus is on our range of environmental control products—fans, heaters, purifiers and humidifiers. We’ve tackled clean floors, but there’s still so much to be done about indoor air quality. It can be up to 100 times worse than air quality outdoors. We’re working on a few projects to help solve that problem.
ID: Describe the James Dyson Foundation and what you hope to accomplish through it.
JD: We have a profound shortage of engineers worldwide, and if we don’t show students early on that it is an interesting and viable career path, that shortage will only grow. I started my Foundation in 2002 in the United Kingdom and brought it to the United States in 2011 to inspire young people to get involved with engineering. My aim is to allow them to get hands-on training in engineering—think of problems, invent solutions, prototype, test, test again. The Foundation runs workshops in schools and sends Engineering Boxes out to any school that requests them. These are free reverse-engineering kits that allow students to disassemble a Dyson machine to discover how and why it works. This year, the Foundation partnered with the City of Chicago to set up three state-of-the-art design and engineering labs in three Chicago Public Schools. Each school will receive industry-standard equipment for student use. And that’s all just in the primary and high school level. We also run a global design competition at the college and post-graduate level called the James Dyson Award with a simple brief: Design something that solves a problem. Some of the inventions that come from young people are truly astounding.
ID: What innovator—living or deceased—do you most admire and why?
JD: One of my heroes is Buckminster Fuller. He turned me into an engineer when, as a student, I discovered him in the mid-60s. He worked on his own, developing these light, geodesic structures when everyone else worked with concrete. His inventions were slightly mad, but they sparked the inventor in me.
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