James Dyson has made millions by allowing us to see the dirt we suck up. As he calls for more inventors, Lucy Siegle asks him about manufacturing abroad, design disasters and whether he could build a nuclear reactor

Dan Gould
  • 2 may 2011

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This article titled “James Dyson: Reinventing Britain” was written by Lucy Siegle, for The Observer on Saturday 30th April 2011 23.05 UTC

I am at Dyson HQ in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, the beacon of British industrialism, which is not a dark satanic mill but all light, contoured glass and bridges over placid water between sculptures. This is the birthplace of the bagless, see-through vacuum cleaner that offers 100% suction (so well known it need only be referred to as “the Dyson”) and the planet’s most powerful hand dryer, the Airblade. Bright young engineers emerge from testing rooms wearing non-business dress (an informal rule) and mingle in the sunshine. People are smiling and holding lattes from the shiny canteen. I’m starting to wish I’d listened harder in science classes.

“I was hugely encouraged recently to hear that 13% of girls in school now actually want to become scientists,” says Dyson. He has the wiry build of a long-distance runner and a look of Nigel Havers. And he bounds up the stairs in polka-dot Yamamoto trainers. “OK, so 37% still want to become models, but 13% are aspiring to be scientists!” He stops. “But then I discovered that they all wanted to be pathologists because of that TV show, CSI.” For every problem, James Dyson suspects there is a solution waiting to be designed. So he spends a few minutes contemplating a drama series that could similarly shift engineering in the aspirations of teenage girls.

“Of course there was that film about a chap who invented the windscreen wiper then allegedly got ripped off,” he says; I think of the 2008 film Flash of Genius. “Then he won some money, which went on the horses. Actually the film was more about the horses than it was about the invention. Same with Howard Hughes. His engineering activities are rather interesting, actually, but the film centres on his drug taking and so on,” he laments.

Hughes was also, famously, a recluse. Dyson is not. He has become as well known for his robust opinions as for the bagless cleaner. “The media thinks that you have to make science sexy and concentrate on themes such as rivalry and the human issues. But just look at the viewing figures for Tomorrow’s World. They were phenomenal, and that just showed pure technology. You don’t need to sex things up. These subjects [technology and engineering] are sexy in their own right.”

Although I spent my childhood happily watching Judith Hann and team riding around in Sinclair C5s, I have a hunch that this next generation is more demanding. But, in an effort to inspire the next crop of engineers and designers, he is running the 2011 James Dyson Award through his eponymous foundation. The last winners to bag the £10,000 on offer to develop their invention – plus £10,000 towards their university education – were Yusuf Muhammad and Paul Thomas, who came up with a way to adapt kitchen taps to respond to domestic fires, thereby minimising casualties and deaths.

You wonder if these young innovators know what’s headed their way. Because becoming an inventor also seems to mean opening yourself up to the possibility of betrayal. “At some point you’re going to feel ripped off,” says Dyson. One of his early inventions was the Ballbarrow – a wheelbarrow centred on a large, pneumatic red ball that gave it stability and made it easier to steer. And it was this odd-looking wheelbarrow that afforded the first professional “betrayal” when Dyson’s business partners, having become majority shareholders, sold the invention to a US manufacturing firm that wrote Dyson out of the equation.

“If you invent something, you’re doing a creative act,” says Dyson. “It’s like writing a novel or composing music. You put your heart and soul into it, and money. It’s years of your life, it’s your house remortgaged, huge emotional investment and financial investment. The Ballbarrow was just the start. Terrible things happen all the time with the vacuum cleaner. People copy it. Society allows and encourages it. But it is theft, and I wish courts and society regarded it as such. Theft or rape, that’s what it’s like.”

Perhaps to relieve an awkward pause after the rape reference, he is up on his feet collecting a series of components to demonstrate the inner workings of the Dyson. His enthusiasm and ability to humanise the workings of the materials and the structure is infectious (next day I find myself googling magnets to find out what they are actually made from). But in the corner of his office, filled with different evolutions of the vacuum, I also spy an example of a Dyson failure: the Contrarotator, a double-drum washing machine that never took off. “It was too expensive to make.” He pauses. “We should have charged more for it, then it would have been a great success, probably.” The inventor is seemingly at ease with failure. “I have failures all day long, every day. I made 5,126 prototypes for the Dyson vacuum. All failed until number 5,127.”

And what a winner number 5,127 proved to be, arguably the totemic aspirational consumer product of our times, catapulting Dyson into Rich List territory. It didn’t just suck up dirt efficaciously; it became a cultural signifier. In the Royle Family Christmas Special, Barb is moved to exclaim: “Ooh Valerie. What a Christmas! Implants and a Dyson!”

“Yes, and there’s also a bit when Jim says: ‘I can’t even afford a bloody Dyson,'” says the inventor, looking quite delighted. In a time when British retail, from fashion to garden furniture, all seems to be about discounting and cheap-as-chips products with the excuse that this somehow democratises consumer goods by making them “affordable”, Dyson is strikingly comfortable about his brand being perceived as expensive. “It’s a consequence of spending so much on R&D. It’s expensive. And I refuse to design down to a cost.”

In fact he scorns the idea of a brand at all. “I don’t believe in brands. Here, we believe people should only buy because they want a vacuum cleaner that does what ours does. I know we sell a lot of Dysons to poor people. They regard it as a significant investment. Someone who is less well-off is more likely to take an interest in their vacuum cleaner. The well-off just say: ‘Oh, the cleaner deals with that.'”

But isn’t this all a bit overengineered, I wonder. I think of my own vacuum, a simple canister on wheels: I’ve never found its reliance on bags or lack of suction cause for concern. “Are you competitive about other hoovers, like the one I have? It’s red and black with big eyes and a smile,” I ask him. Dyson is cool. “I’m not going to comment on competitors. I know exactly which one you mean. We do what we do: do away with bags, 100% suction. Henry can do what it wants.”

Dyson does not have a problem speaking his mind, or indeed being heard, and he’s done a good job of keeping the topic of industrial design in the news. Take his recent suggestion that Chinese students were stealing intellectual property from UK universities, which caused a minor storm. “What that article was really about was the tragic situation that 80% of postgraduate students are non-British. It is great to have more undergraduates doing science, but for blue-sky research – important risky research that translates into new technology which we can sell to the rest of the world – we need them to stay on and do postgraduate research. This is not xenophobia – it’s the simple fact that we need postgraduate scientists here to create wealth. That’s my point, more than the theft of intellectual property from universities.”

So is there a problem with the thieving of intellectual property from British universities by Chinese students? “Well, I’m told there is. Yes. I have heard of a few instances. Of course it may not be confined to the Chinese.”

Ultimately the thing that appears to drive the inventor of the fastest electric motor in the world is a desire to reboot manufacturing in the UK. “When I was growing up, the balance of trade was on the news every night because it was of such desperate concern. Now it’s so bad it’s disappeared entirely. If we import more than we export, we’re a declining economy.” But you moved your manufacturing base overseas, I venture. “No, I didn’t,” he says. “You did. In 2002,” I refer to the newspaper cuttings of the time. “No, I didn’t. I moved my assembly. And that’s because they wouldn’t let me expand over there,” he gestures towards a large house, the head office of a construction company.

It’s a careful distinction – to the lay person, assembly is part of manufacturing, and the media lamented the loss of 800 “manufacturing jobs” at the time. In 2009 there was a similar tussle with the Environment Agency over a proposed Dyson academy in Bath which never happened. (The Environment Agency claimed the proposed site was a flood plain, and plans were dropped. Much was made of the fact that the Labour government ran with plans for a “rival” academy with Peter Jones of Dragons’ Den.)

He does, however, seem to feel that this government speaks his language. He has written a report for David Cameron on increasing Britain’s technology exports. He gives George Osborne a “big thumbs-up” for what he sees as the right tax breaks for entrepreneurs in the recent budget. “I feel optimistic. But then I am an optimist,” he says.

Is he happy with his achievements? The bagless vacuum cleaners, the Ballbarrow, the new bladeless fan – all exciting for the consumer, but considering Dyson’s interest in the big themes such as energy policy and climate change, doesn’t he ever want to solve a problem bigger than vacuuming? Is, for example, the Dyson nuclear reactor (he is a fan of nuclear and solar) in development? “Goodness, I know nothing about nuclear energy.” I point out that he knew nothing about vacuum cleaners either. “True. I knew nothing about anything. I did classics at school and went to college to do design and then got interested in engineering. My limit is a terrific interest in technology.”

Given that he is essentially an autodidact who has made millions, why is there so much emphasis on making highly trained engineers out of the rest of us? “Well, I couldn’t have made that motor,” he says, gesticulating to the innards of a Dyson. “In fact I can’t do three-quarters of the work we do here. For that I need highly trained scientists.”

And when can we see your next invention, I ask. “When it’s ready!” And with that, Dyson’s chief engineer bounces off to the R&D laboratory.

Entries for the James Dyson Award are open until 2 August. To enter, visit © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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