I grew up in rural north Norfolk so my early childhood was spent collecting tadpoles in jam jars and running in the sand dunes. I spent one summer building a lighting system for a friend’s house. I did little but electrocute myself but it got me thinking about why things were made the way they were. I haven’t changed much in 60 years!
When you began looking at a career, was inventing and technology always what you wanted to be involved in or were you drawn towards other subjects?
Not initially. My parents were classicists so it was expected that I would follow that route. It wasn’t until I got to the Royal College of Art that I got my hands dirty taking things apart while studying industrial design. I realised I had an innate curiosity to take things apart and improve their original design – to make them work better.
What were your earliest inventions?
While at the Royal College of Art I designed the Sea Truck. It was a flat-hulled, high-speed landing craft, capable of carrying a three-ton load at 50mph. It was working on this that I met my mentor Jeremy Fry at Rotork. He taught me the Edisonian approach to design – using empirical testing to improve things. Jeremy was all about prototype, prototype, prototype. It’s an engineering approach that is crucial to how we operate at Dyson today.
When did the transition come from those earliest inventions to inventing your first vacuum cleaner?
It wasn’t really a transition. Frustrations have a habit of jumping up on you. I was fed up with my Hoover Junior constantly losing suction and not working in the way that it should, so I simply ripped the bag off and decided to investigate. I realised that the tiny pores inside a vacuum bag clog with dust and dirt and cause the machine to lose performance. It’s a fundamental flaw in the technology. That’s when I started developing my cyclonic technology.
How was your first Dyson vacuum received by the public?
People embraced cyclone technology and started turning their backs on the bag. After 18 months DC01 became the bestselling vacuum cleaner in the UK. But getting there was the hard part. It had required 5,127 prototypes and 15 years before my cyclonic technology took off. Too many retailers were hung up on the lucrative bagged vacuum cleaner market so they dismissed my bagless machine out of hand. I was also told by these so-called “experts” that a clear bin was a bad idea and that no one would want to see the dirt lurking in their homes. I was stubborn and persisted with my technology.
How did it feel to create a product that is now a household name the world over?
People all over the world appreciate good technology – things that work better than anything else out there. If it doesn’t do that then people won’t buy it. That’s why we keep on inventing, developing new machines that solve different everyday problems.
Why did you set up the James Dyson Foundation?
To create the engineers of tomorrow – and by the way, there will be a projected shortfall of 356,000 engineers by 2024. Design and technology needs to be exciting. We must get children problem solving and experimenting with new materials. All too often they spend their time making keyrings and chopping up wood. That’s not engineering. We must show them the modern job of an engineer.
What does the Foundation involve?
I set it up in 2002 to encourage young people to pursue careers in engineering while also supporting medical research charities throughout the UK. We’re now working with primary schools, secondary schools, undergraduate students and postgraduate students – developing bright engineers at every level. Investing in the roots – in education – is essential. Each year we run The James Dyson Award, which encourages engineering students to design something that solves a problem. Last year’s UK national winner, Sam Etherington, developed Renewable Wave Power, a device to harvest wave energy. Since winning Sam has begun real-life testing his design and is now progressing it towards commercialisation.
Do you see the Foundation as a way of passing on your legacy as a great British inventor?
Without bright engineers we simply won’t develop the new technology we need to tackle the world’s big problems – things like urban regeneration, environmental sustainability and ageing infrastructure. It’s essential we fund and develop the next generation of engineers and scientists to deliver these technologies.
Do youngsters manage to take you by surprise with their ideas and skills?
All the time. Young people have unsullied minds and are willing to take risks. That’s exactly why we must capture this creativity at a young age and inspire children about the possibilities of a career in engineering. My Foundation is working with five schools in Bath to develop industry-relevant resources aimed at exciting children about new technology and the design process. We’ve invested £500,000 to equip the schools with 3D printers, lasers, scanners and routers. Already we’ve seen the number of children taking D&T classes double across the five schools. It’s inspiring to see.
What creation are you most proud of to date and why?
The Dyson digital motor. Dyson has been working over the past 15 years on developing the world’s smallest, fastest electric motors. They depend on digital technology to spin at up to 110,000 times a minute. They are already in our Dyson Airblade hand dryers and cordless technology – but they will power a whole new generation of technology going forward. It’s patented so it’s only in Dyson technology.
What kind of things are you interested in away from work?
Away from work it’s as much about making things. I’ve begun to craft my own furniture at home. I’ve crafted carbon-fibre chairs and a desk in my office is made from the remnants of an airplane wing.
What can you see in the future for Dyson?
Research and development is a slow burn; we have a 25-year pipeline of technology. We develop core technologies, like motors and robotic capabilities – while experimenting with new materials like graphene and carbon nanotubes. We’ll see where the technology takes us.