Dyson is a symbol of innovation around the world, but they got their humble start in a garage, just like so many other important companies of today. James Dyson, the inventor behind the company’s rise to fame and the continuing sole owner of the company, started working on a new way to vacuum after realizing that his Hoover Junior was losing suction over time, as the bag filled with dust and the mesh became clogged. Over 5000 prototypes later, Dyson implemented centripetal cyclones similar to those used in sawmills and build the G-Force, a revolution of a vacuum cleaner that propelled Dyson into the very lucrative vacuum cleaner industry. Now, Dyson sells to over 70 countries, produces vacuum cleaners, hand dryers, fans, and heaters, but the company continues to push the entrepreneurial inventor mindset that it was founded on. All of this, from Dyson’s early prototyping efforts in the coach house attached to his home in Cotswolds, England.
James has always been an inventor. Since an early age, innovation has drove him to find new solutions to old problems. Any time that James encountered a problem in his life, his first thought was always trying to find some way to solve it. He was the third child in his family, so he had the freedom to do most anything he wanted. In his early schooling, he pursued classics and the arts, but by the time that he reached college age, James had realized that engineering and design were his true callings. He found a job working on an amphibious landing craft that Jeremy Fry, an engineer he met at school, was working on. Fry’s hands off teaching style let James make his own mistakes, and from this job he learned quite a bit about fabricating prototypes.
By the time he was 27, James was renovating his property and having some trouble with his wheelbarrow. The front wheel of the tool sank into the mud, often making it difficult to use, and the steel body would damage paint and stick to the cement he was moving. In 1974, Dyson produced a prototype of the Ballbarrow, a simple fiberglass wheelbarrow with a ball instead of a wheel. This simple change made the tool more stable and less prone to sinking into mud, without increasing the complexity, and more importantly, it won James the Building Design Innovation Award in 1977.
It became clear, in the coming years, that James was an inventor to be reckoned with. In 1978, he invented the Trolleyball, a boat launcher with balls for wheels. This simple theme of replacing wheels with balls was only the beginning of James’ true work, since his next invention would require technical advances far beyond just a ball replacement, but his repeated success gave him the confidence he needed to keep pursuing his dream. In the same year, Dyson set his sights on his next goal – improving the vacuum cleaner. While cleaning the house with his Hoover, he realized that the suction technology was rife with problems and set out to find an improvement. It would be a long road to the founding of Dyson in 1993, but James kept true to his ideals of innovation and ended up producing a product that now defines quality in its industry, and a company that is a paragon of innovation and and inspiration to engineers everywhere.
The kernel of an idea at the heart of Dyson’s machine was the cyclone, which spun the air such that dust was separated from the clean air, obviating the need for a filter or bag. This centrifugal force was difficult to generate on such a small scale in a way that wasn’t cost-prohibitive, but James spent the next five years of his life finding a way to circumvent this problem. His wife Deirdre was always supporting, working as an art teacher to fund her husband’s inventing habit. According to James, her methodical approach to art, in which a painting can take a year, allowed her to understand the sort of time required to tinker with his inventions until they were just right. Like many entrepreneurs, James does not accept being second best, and to this day every Dyson product is a complete reimagining of what came before, instead of a slight incremental improvement.
These five years were spent in his coach house.
In 1981, three years into his invention process, James filed for a U.S. Patent on his Dual Cyclone machine, the compact turbine chamber that he reached after 5127 prototyping attempts. It took two years more for James to find anyone willing to produce or sell his machine, and during that time, Dyson only found one way to profit from his new invention – licensed sales through the Japanese company Apex. Apex built a cleaner called the G-Force based on Dyson’s work, which retailed for the equivalent of $2000 – the G-Force went on to become not only the face of the new vacuum cleaner in Japan, but also a status symbol based on its relatively high price tag.
Using a combination of the income from his Japanese license and $900,000 borrowed against his house, James began manufacturing his vacuum himself. Although his price tag was still higher than any of the competitors, he also had a higher quality product, and believed that this would carry him to success. At first, the only place he could sell was to a mail-order catalog, which he allegedly only sold because he (after a long day of negotiations) told the catalog’s manager that they should replace their ads for Electrolux or Hoover with his own because their catalog was boring. That first sale went on to secure him another catalog’s interest, then two small storefronts.
James Dyson went on to be CEO of the newly formed Dyson company, manufacturing his own product in-house then selling through retail outlets and catalogs, but in truth his heart was never in business and to this day, although he maintains 100% control of the company, he keeps his original mindset front and center. Without the need to cater to shareholders, Dyson can pursue the projects that interest him, solving the world one engineering problem at a time. In recent years, Dyson has made an Airblade hand drying unit and a blade-less fan called the “Air Multiplier”, which relies upon inducement and entrainment to create airflow with just a circular device. Like before, Dyson is pushing the envelope.
We hope that you enjoyed learning about the great mind and innovations behind Dyson, and that you’ll return next week to learn about our next example of garage greatness, the computer systems giant Microsoft!