Inventor of the Year: James Dyson

Courtesy Dyson

Having released two new products this year (a robotic vacuum cleaner and a revolutionary new hair dryer), the self-made billionaire tells us how he engineers his company’s success.

Julian Sancton: The New Yorker once called you “the man who made vacuum cleaners sexy.” Would you be happy with having that be your epitaph?
James Dyson: Yes, I would. I quite like the prosaic and trying to make it interesting, to make more lovable objects. I look at things like skis and surfboards, and clearly the people who use them are passionate about them. But I don’t think that was ever true of vacuum cleaners and fans, or even a hair dryer. You don’t look at a hair dryer and think the person blowing out their hair really loves that hair dryer. I’m very interested in taking the mundane and making it intelligent.

Generally how much of your day is spent running the company versus developing the products?
I spend my days with the engineers, developing new products and new technology. That’s what I love doing. I’m an owner of the company, but I have people running it intelligently for me.

How has the nature of invention changed since you began your career?
When I started in the late ’60s–early ’70s, it was entirely engineering-based. Hardware-based. The pace you have to operate at has been multiplied several times. And it got highly complex, with vision systems, artificial intelligence, automation, battery development, which we’ve been doing for a couple of years. My particular interest is in developing hardware in parallel with software—or “tech,” as everybody calls it for some reason these days. Together the two make a very powerful combination.

You studied classics—not the most practical field! Do you still get something from it?
My father was a classics teacher and my brother was a classics scholar, so it was assumed that I would be too. But I was not a very good classicist. Because of that, it was almost a detective process to work out what a Latin sentence meant. Which is not that different from the engineering process. And I think perhaps not having been a scientist or an engineer gives me a sort of naïveté: “You’re telling me what I’m doing is wrong, but I just want to pursue it to see what happens.”

What is your criterion for releasing a new product? What does it have to do?
This sounds a bit trite, but if it’s just a marginal improvement we’re not interested. It’s got to be a real step change. You often don’t release a product because it isn’t enough of a step change. And because we’re a private company, we don’t have to admit our failures to anybody. You made your name in the vacuum business.

Are you a neat freak?
A what freak?

Neat freak. Someone who’s maniacal about cleanliness?
Yes and no. I quite like creating a mess and then working my way through it. Because inventing and development is a bit like that. There are so many opportunities, and you’ve got to order them and eliminate them to create something. When my wife goes to where I work at home, she’ll say, “It’s always a mess,” and I’ll say, “No, it isn’t. I always tidy it up.” I quite like working in a mess and creating something out of chaos.

Courtesy Dyson

Dyson's Greatest Hits

1993: The DC01 vacuum cleaner did away with vacuum bags, which clogged up.

2006: The Dyson Airblade hand dryer did away with germs (most of them).

2009: The Dyson Air Multiplier fan did away with fan blades.

2016: The Dyson 360 Eye robotic vacuum cleaner did away with humans.