British inventor James Dyson says getting angry motivates him to create

Getting angry when something doesn't work properly has driven British inventor James Dyson to devise some of his best products, he tells James King

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 November, 2013, 6:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 November, 2013, 6:17pm

What connects hirsute comedian Billy Connolly and knight of the realm, inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson?

"We're both keen welders," says Dyson, instantly warming to yet another fascinating diversion to add to a list that already includes the appallingly thought-out seating arrangements at the BBC's new second home in Salford, Britain, and cyclones on top of sawmills.

"I was sitting next to Billy at a film premiere, and the film started late," he says, "so we had a long discussion about welding - he worked as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards. And we talked about anger: anger stimulates him. He doesn't know what he's going to talk about before he goes on stage, he just thinks about what makes him angry and that's it."

But why would anger exercise an interlocutor as civil and engaging as Dyson?

"When something doesn't work properly, it's anger that really gets you going," he says.

Anger would prove to be the genesis of a multibillion-dollar company now recognised as the begetter of household and office appliances of hitherto unimagined shape, flamboyant colours, and formidable functionality.

James Dyson, 66, graduate of London's Royal College of Art, knighted in 2007, must have welded, hammered, battered, beaten, twisted and tweaked enough components to build a battleship in his quest for perfection. It was a trend that began early in his design career, and one that soon embarked on a symbiotic relationship with those angry thoughts.

Dyson's first original invention was 1974's Ballbarrow, which owed its existence to his irritation with the conventional wheelbarrow he had been using for home renovations.

Its tub rusted and its wheel sank into soggy ground, problems that disappeared with substitution by a plastic tub and spherical wheel.

By 1983, customers would be feeling the force - the G-Force - Dyson's first vacuum cleaner, although not in the numbers he had hoped, at least not initially.

I saw an enormous, funnel-shaped cyclone on the roof collecting dust from saws and spinning it out of the airstream, and it wasn't clogging. I went home and built a model using the same technology
James Dyson

"I remembered the sound of the vacuum cleaner I'd used as a child; the screaming noise and the dust," he says. "And there I was, at 28, and I've got a family and house with an expensive new vacuum cleaner that's screaming but not picking up. So I got quite angry one Saturday and took it to bits to see what the problem was. I had assumed the dust was deposited in the bag and the suction depended on the strength of the motor.

"But the bag was the problem: all the dust went into it, and the air, and the bag pores quickly became clogged. The strength of the motor didn't matter because the bag blocked the airflow and the suction."

A visit to a timber yard brought the eureka moment. "I saw an enormous, funnel-shaped cyclone on the roof collecting dust from saws and spinning it out of the airstream, and it wasn't clogging. I went home and built a model using the same technology," he says.

That crude mock-up was the start of a long but ultimately dust-free road: five years and a scarcely credible 5,127 prototypes later, the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner rolled onto an unsuspecting carpet.

Dyson's passion, however, is selling products as well as developing and making them, and difficulties with the first would have seen a lesser man bite all that dust. In turn, the major manufacturers of household goods rejected his invention, but, rather than be downcast, Dyson grew bolder and increasingly heartened as it dawned on him that, although he would have to go it alone, he could go his own way.

Japan embraced the G-Force and its principle of cyclonic separation, and with the income from the sale of the manufacturing licence, the Dyson factory and research centre arrived in Malmesbury, England, from where Dyson is speaking today. The company now employs about 3,000 staff worldwide and sells its products in 50 countries.

In Britain, Malaysia (which is the company's manufacturing base) and Singapore, research and development engineers obsess about innovation and continual improvement.

Given their backgrounds in robotics, microbiology, mechanical engineering, acoustics, fluid dynamics and many other fields, is there a deliberate method of cross-fertilisation going on?

"Yes," says Dyson. "Their average age is 26, they're really enthusiastic and I'm proud of the fact that they don't have experience. If you have experience you want to use it, but we always want to do something really different. They're living the life I didn't have," he says with a laugh. "I am them."

Right down, it seems, to the compulsion to put together unlimited prototypes. "It's really important that our engineers make their own, because it's in the making and testing of something that you see what can be improved," says Dyson.

"Often that means a radical rethink and that occurs because of what you've been doing - rarely does it happen in abstraction."

So today, after the Zorbster, the Airblade, the Air Multiplier, the Animal and an entire menagerie of related innovations for household or public use, Dyson is presenting his latest inventions.

There's the Hard cordless vacuum cleaner, a hard-floor grime-buster which cuts out smearing. "With hard flooring you have to mop, then vacuum. The Hard does both and vacuums front and back, meaning a total absence of smearing," he says.

Then there's the energy-efficient, utility bill-busting Hot + Cool bladeless heater fan. "In winter, you take out the heater, then in summer you put it away and take out the fan. With this you need only one device."

Finally, there's the compact Turbinehead vacuum cleaner, the latest in the Dyson Ball generation of machines. "It's the quietest vacuum cleaner we've ever made. It's small, quiet and light because of its digital motor, which spins at 104,000rpm, three times the speed of a conventional motor, and which makes it electrically very efficient," he says.

Dyson's relentless mission to improve lives by making products work better continues to inspire younger generations of engineers, not least through the James Dyson Foundation.

He also gave advice to the British government in 2010 in his report Ingenious Britain. Many of his fiscal suggestions have been implemented, "but not the cultural aspects so much; Britain's lack of engineers should be talked about as an engineering, not a political, problem," he says.

Despite all his achievements, does he think that he will be remembered as VacMan?

"Yes, probably," he says. "People do like to put labels on things. But I'd rather be thought of as someone who saw the importance of how things work, not how they look."