James Dyson reinvented the world – at the very least, the way we think about it and the way we keep it nice. The billionaire innovator reveals the plusses of perseverance, his gin-less wonder and his plans for 2027.
He has many qualities, but above all James Dyson has resolve. After devising a totally new technical vacuum cleaner concept in 1978, it took 15 years, 5,126 prototypes, and continual rejection from existing vacuum cleaner companies before he launched a product under his own name: the Dyson DC01. It turned out in his favour that potential partners and investors didn’t believe in him, because that meant he had to finance his company himself. Today he is the sole owner and, consequently, one of the world’s richest 500 people. Dyson’s reinvention of everyday items like heaters, fans and hand-dryers points the way to a future of clever, compact commonplace surprises. In person, Dyson, who has been Sir James since 2007, is amused and very relaxed.
The Red Bulletin: Shall we talk about vacuum cleaners?
James Dyson: Sounds exciting.
You’ve radically improved objects that no one else thought could work differently. Can we expect more surprises like this from you?
Yes, there’s no end of possibilities, particularly now that the environment is so important. We make products that are more efficient, that work better, use fewer materials, less electricity, less water – and less energy. This makes engineering and the development of new technology much more fun, much more interesting, much more complex and also much more challenging. It’s a wonderful time to be an engineer or a scientist.
What is the most important quality in a person who believes in something and actually makes it a reality?
If you want to do something that is different, you must think it is better. You can’t ask anybody for advice, because no one else knows what the future is going to be, or whether your idea will work. So you have to make the decision for yourself. And you don’t know for sure, you’re only guessing, but it isn’t entirely intuitive. You can use logic to explain why you might be correct, but doing something different, something new – there is only so much logic you can use. You don’t know whether people will like something just because you do. You have to be stubborn as a mule, because usually most people think your idea will fail. Here’s an example: our vacuum cleaners are transparent. You can see the dirt. Many people were irritated by this, and therefore shops didn’t want to sell our product. So I said, “Well, I’m sorry, but that’s how my vacuum cleaner is.”
Seeing your own ‘emissions’, as it were, is interesting. The American author Erica Jong once described her shock at sitting on a German shelf- type toilet for the first time and catching a glimpse of the legacy she left behind before flushing.
At first I found it shocking as well. I thought they’d installed the toilet bowl back to front – the water in front, and the pan behind. But it was still an interesting experience.
Many doctors recommend taking a backward glance so that we understand our bodily functions. But we’re digressing. It’s said that long-distance running helped you to become stubborn and determined.
Long-distance running is a quite a lonely thing to do. You do it on your own. Most people slow down when they feel tired, but you have to accelerate when you get tired, simply because everybody else gets tired. In life, most people give up at the point when they are about to be successful. So, if you want to make a breakthrough, if you want to do something nobody has done before, you have to go through that pain barrier, even though you might collapse at the end of it. Herb Elliott [Australian winner of 1,500m gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics] ran up and down sand dunes in his training. That’s very painful. I grew up in north Norfolk, and I ran up and down the highest sand dunes I could find.
The people you admire include philosophers, scientists, inventors and engineers. If you had to pick one as a stand-out, who would it be?
I choose Brunel. [Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 19th century civil engineer; builder of railways, bridges and steamships.] I particularly like him because he had a pathological desire to completely innovate with everything he did. He couldn’t repeat anything, do anything that anyone else had done. I admire that enormously. Whatever he did looked beautiful, extremely elegant. He never talked about it, but I learned from him that engineering in itself and engineering innovation is beautiful. You don’t have to try to design something if the engineering is beautiful.
Read the full interview with James Dyson in April's issue of The Red Bulletin.