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James Dyson on how trial and error got him to the top of the rich list

20 min read

Dyson speaks to Nick Rufford about the joy of inventing, the pain of red tape and his blueprint to save British innovation.

Deep in the Wiltshire countryside, James Dyson is tinkering in his shed, but it’s not the usual garden variety. As befits Britain’s best-known inventor, he has test rigs, hoists, machine tools and other paraphernalia built into a giant aircraft hangar. In fact, he bought the entire airfield to give him the space to assemble things and pull them apart. He’s cagey about what he’s working on, as you might expect. An electric bike? The world’s first silent leaf blower? “Aha. Well, I’m not allowed to say,” he smiles apologetically.

Outside there are security guards and a high perimeter fence. Some of the buildings are so well camouflaged, they’re invisible on Google Earth. Visitors are vetted and must put masking tape over the lenses of their smartphones before they can enter. “We’ve got a lot of intellectual [property] actions going on all over the world, mostly in China,” Dyson confides. “It is a serious worry. We’re careful about security and we take a lot of precautions.”

Dyson cleaned up after inventing a vacuum cleaner that sells in more than 80 countries. From a modest start in a makeshift factory in old pigsties, he built his engineering company into a behemoth with an annual turnover of more than £5 billion ($9.7 billion) and profits reaching £1 billion ($1.9 billion) in 2018. It’s a success story that propelled him to the top of The Sunday Times Rich List last year.

When I finally clear all the checks to see him, he’s looking summery in deck shoes (“£20 from Amazon”), navy slacks and an open-necked shirt, with an aura of old-school charm. He removes a pair of Harry Potter spectacles when we sit down to chat. He was knighted, as the joke goes, for “services to vacuuming” but doesn’t want anyone sucking up and calling him Sir. “Just James,” he says affably.

What he can reveal is that he’s developing a power source called a solid-state battery that has the potential to store more energy than lithium-ion batteries and put even more oomph into his Supersonic hairdryer. Hitherto it has been too expensive for domestic appliances. Scaled up it could revolutionise transportation, too, though Dyson says he won’t be selling it to others. “We’ve spent hundreds of millions [setting up the production line in Singapore] and it’ll cost billions to produce the number that we need, which is why I’m not very keen to make them for anyone else.”

It’s an exciting breakthrough. When will the first solid-state-powered gadget go on sale?

“Pretty soon. You have to test a battery for a whole year before you can put it in a product. We’re doing two different types, because small things [like wearables] need one type of battery and cars and vacuum cleaners need another type.” Does he have a prototype here in Wiltshire? “Yes, very much so.” When I later ask to see it during a tour of the lab my guide says it’s not possible. It’s in an exclusion zone, behind reinforced doors. More security. This is a hush-hush world of Chinese walls to thwart Chinese hackers and other industrial spies. When Dyson’s male engineers were testing a new type of hairdryer they were not allowed to reveal the reason for growing their hair long — even to their partners.

It’s fair to point out that Dyson’s ideas aren’t limited to household gadgets. He has designed and sold boats to the military and a missile carrier to the aerospace industry. When he patented a new amphibious vehicle with combat potential the Patent Office requisitioned the plans and locked them in a safe, as they did when Christopher Cockerell came up with the hovercraft. He still can’t reveal details.

Some of his projects have been duds, of course. His contra-rotating washing machine was a damp squib, despite the spin the marketing people put on it. And in 2019 he pulled the plug on his electric car before it went into production. But he’s not trying to draw a veil over those flops. In fact, that’s what he wants to talk about. He’s written a book called Invention, but that’s the publisher’s title. He wanted to call it Failure because what we’ve all forgotten in our modern-day blame culture is that no achievement is possible without foul-ups. Every successful invention is the result of trial and error, with the emphasis on error, he says. “I love failures — they’re interesting,” he laughs.

His Wiltshire research centres are shrines to this wing-and-a-prayer spirit. The airfield at Hullavington once buzzed with Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters. Built in 1937 for the Air Ministry, it was eventually decommissioned and abandoned. Dyson has spent millions restoring the buildings. He has the original jet engine, made by Frank Whittle, a British inventor and one of Dyson’s heroes.

His enviable car collection includes a classic Citroën Maserati and a beautiful Citroën DS, tributes to André Citroën, another of his heroes. The others, since you ask, are Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the Mini, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Soichiro Honda, the brains behind the Super Cub motorcycle, the world’s bestselling vehicle. (Interestingly, he doesn’t have much to say about Elon Musk, another inventor-industrialist and, on paper, a kindred spirit.)

He lives near by in the 300-acre Dodington Park estate in Gloucestershire, a grade I listed mansion he bought in 2003. Not long ago he withdrew plans to add a waterfall to the lake, one of many run-ins with planners, of which he has more to say later. He has a house and vineyards in the south of France and is one of Europe’s biggest farmers with 35,000 acres spread across Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset — more land than the Queen’s Sandringham estate — for which he has received millions of pounds in farming subsidies.

When he’s not at the drawing board he’s on board his yacht. After our interview he’ll be preparing to leave Britain for the rest of the summer, heading for Spain (“If you can go there,” he cautions, acknowledging travel restrictions) and his 91-metre vessel, Nahlin. It’s the largest British-flagged and owned superyacht, bought from his friend Sir Anthony Bamford in 2006. “It’s in Tarragona, but the Spanish coast is not a good yachting coast,” he observes. “The Balearics are. Greece and Italy, of course.” Confusingly, for the non-nautical, the “yacht” is actually a motor cruiser. The yacht he sails is carried on deck and lowered by crane when it reaches its destination.

He has planes, too, but they’re museum pieces: a Harrier jump jet in the car park of his Malmesbury campus, and a Lightning made by the now defunct English Electric that hangs from the roof of a huge, light and airy new cafeteria built for his local staff. He collects these things not as trinkets but because they’re examples of brilliant design, built in better days when engineers were lauded.

Britain’s glorious manufacturing past is a recurring theme of his book. He’s worried that Asian economies will take over as centres for design and excellence. In Singapore 40 per cent of graduates are engineers, he says. In Britain the figure is 4 per cent. “If you visit a British university, you see 400 students passing out in media studies and only 30 engineers,” he says. “I fear China and Korea and other countries will overtake us, if they haven’t already. Even the Philippines and Mexico produce more engineers than we do. Technology is much harder to develop now, much more complex. When I started we were a group of mechanical engineers, but now more than 50 per cent of our engineers are software or electronics specialists, plus fluid dynamics and battery experts and other scientists. If we’re not producing those people, we’re going to get poorer and poorer.”

What’s gone wrong? “I think as a country gets wealthy it tends to forget what made it wealthy, namely developing technology and manufacturing and exporting and creating wealth,” he says. “It tends to prefer cerebral activities — everything else almost, bar the job of designing and developing technology and actually making things in a factory, which I love doing. I find it very exciting and quite romantic actually, but no one else does. I’ve been at parties where people say, what do you do? I say, well, I’m an engineer and I make things. They walk away.” It’s disappointing, he sighs.

In his book he quotes CP Snow, the novelist and chemist who in 1959 warned of a fashionable attitude that had taken hold among the elite of the time: namely that a knowledge of Shakespeare was more important for status than knowing the second law of thermodynamics. If anything things are worse now, Dyson says. “Certainly in Britain to be unable to change a plug, repair a lawnmower or hang a picture is all too often seen as a mark of cultural refinement and social superiority,” he laments in his book.

He partly blames those in power, who are drawn from a narrow elite. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that no politician has been an engineer or a manufacturer. They do PPE [philosophy, politics and economics] and go on to be political assistants, PPSs [parliamentary private secretaries] or something, and end up as PM. They live inside that Oxford-Westminster bubble.”

It’s not just politicians, he warns. It’s people in the arts and media. The Danny Boyle-scripted opening ceremony of the London Olympics is a case in point. It was written for liberal Britain and had the effect of a slap in the face for industrialists who made Great Britain great. Dark satanic mills were demolished to make way for a supposedly brighter, more caring Britain filled with NHS hospital beds and pop music. “They had women with the huge hammers and these chimneys that were belching out smoke and so on. What we’re forgetting is that the Industrial Revolution took us out of serfdom. People were able to have their own house and a wage and be independent. Before the Industrial Revolution that simply wasn’t true. People were effectively serfs. A lot of them starved.”

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the explorer and former SAS soldier, tells a story about how Dyson once offered to loan him special forces bodyguards to look after his wife, Ginny. Fiennes was on a polar expedition that Dyson was sponsoring and was worried about his family’s safety because of a book he’d written on the criminal underworld. Fiennes recalls: “I was grateful, but out of curiosity I asked, why would a vacuum cleaner manufacturer have ex-special forces people? He said he feared there were Hoover spies and he’d already spent an awful lot of money on a case against Hoover for copying his dual cyclone.”

When I put the story to Dyson he confirms there was a bitter legal battle with Hoover, settled in 2002 when Hoover paid £4 million in damages, but has no recollection of employing special forces people.

He does confirm that he inadvertently made himself a potential target by selling military equipment to both sides during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He designed and sold a boat called a Sea Truck — suitable for carrying troops and vehicles — to both the Egyptians and Israelis. “It got me into a little bit of trouble,” he admits. “The Israelis said, ‘We don’t mind you supplying the Arabs, but just don’t boast about it.’ They were very nice about it.”

“Were you afraid of repercussions?”

“I suppose I was very young at the time,” he says. “The thought never occurred to me.”

The young Dyson was remarkable not just for his inventiveness but for taking huge personal risks. Weighed down by debt, mortgaged to the hilt, rebuffed by domestic appliance makers and forced to go it alone, often mired in litigation, all the time with a family to support, he ploughed on regardless.

The central message in his book is that there are no shortcuts to success, despite the modern illusion of instant celebrity. An example is the dust separator at the centre of his bagless vacuum cleaner. The concept was patented by the delightfully named Knickerbocker Company of Jackson, Michigan, in 1885, but only giant versions had been used, for cleaning air in factories. Academic studies suggested they wouldn’t work on household dust, which, Dyson explains, is “as fine as tobacco smoke”. He proved the studies wrong but only after more than 5,000 attempts. What saved him was prototype number 5,127, which was able to capture the tiniest particles.

Somehow in the past half century Britain may have lost this doggedness of try, fail, repeat — and it’s vital, not just to maintain our status in the world, but because we’re facing problems that can be solved only by engineers, he says. Climate change is one. Instead of a focus for radical thinking it has become a bandwagon for lobbyists. “We need more young people to study science and engineering to solve these problems rather than the daily stream of the same grandstanding campaigners,” he observes.

At 74, he’s still trying, and still failing, he says. His electric car project ran out of road because automobile giants with deeper pockets entered the race. He abandoned a medical ventilator that he developed at the start of the pandemic for use in hospitals. It hurt, he admits, not least because he’d spent £20 million ($39 million) of his own money on it. “The civil servants kept changing the specifications,” he explains. There’s something gloriously British about his hit-and-miss, built-in-a-shed approach that will carry on for as long as he’s boss, which, he admits, may not be for much longer. “I don’t know. We’ll see. One’s brain and one’s back don’t necessarily hold up. I’ve got a very bad back. So maybe I won’t be able to go on. But while I can, I’m enjoying it so much.”

If he hands over the reins, it’ll probably be to Jake, his elder son. Is he being groomed as a successor? “I’m really lucky because he’s in the business and has the same sort of passions that I do. I could retire. He ought to take over because it’s a family business.”

Meanwhile, Dyson’s younger son, Sam, is “trying to navigate the ruins of the music industry which Spotify have managed to completely wreck”, Dyson says. “He has his own band — Ramona Flowers — and record label called Distiller. He’s a very good engineer, but music is his thing, his passion.”

Dyson’s daughter, Emily, was a fashion designer at Paul Smith and now has a clothing shop called Couverture & the Garbstore in west London.

He has six grandchildren (“I’ve asked for more,” he laughs) — plenty to keep him busy when he starts easing off the throttle.

James Dyson was born just after the Second World War, a third child and “like many third children felt an almost pathological longing from early on to prove myself by going my own way”. His father returned from “sniper-infested jungles” in Burma to be head of classics at James’s prep school, Gresham’s, in Holt, Norfolk. He ran the school cadet force, coached rugby and taught a young James to sail dinghies on the Norfolk Broads. “It was all very Famous Five, Secret Seven and Swallows and Amazons,” Dyson recalls. “We did all the things that would probably be banned today for being too dangerous.”

A young Dyson had an early love of making things, including toy soldiers using molten lead, model gliders and aeroplanes powered by tiny engines. A shadow was cast over his idyllic childhood when his father was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and lungs. Dyson Sr struggled on, using a loudhailer to take school lessons but died aged 40 when James was nine. “Ever since then a part of me has been making up for that unjust separation from my father,” he says in his book. “Perhaps I had to learn quickly to make decisions for myself, to be self-reliant and to take risks.”

His mother, a vicar’s daughter, raised her three children single-handedly and Dyson may have “inherited my mother’s determination and warrior spirit”. He excelled at long-distance running because, he says, he had staying power. “Running taught me to overcome the pain barrier. When everyone else is exhausted, that is the opportunity to win the race.” She also encouraged him in acting and painting.

Money was tight and the family lived in part of a crumbling Victorian house in Holt, Norfolk. “The one motorised machine we had was an old upright vacuum cleaner with a cloth bag hanging from its handle. It was smelly, dusty and ineffective. It haunted me for many years.”

He left school with ho-hum qualifications — A-levels in art, ancient history and general studies — but with a desire to create that led him in 1965 to sign up at the Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting, where he met his future wife, Deirdre Hindmarsh. He won a place the following year at the Royal College of Art, where “nonconformity was celebrated”. “I began to grow my hair, wear flowery shirts and bell-bottom trousers.”

There he began experimenting with new lightweight materials like Perspex, PVC, polyester and acrylic. His first commission was from another inventor-engineer, who became Dyson’s mentor. Jeremy Fry, of the Fry’s chocolate family, asked Dyson to build a pair of “Jesus floats” — floating skis — so his eight-year-old daughter could walk on water. After that the pair worked together on a flat-bottomed landing craft that could lift itself over the water riding on a layer of bubbles. “We called this an ‘air-lubricated hull’,” Dyson recalls. The craft was the Sea Truck and Dyson’s first full-time job was to make and sell it. “It seemed remarkable to me then that this young man, dressed in floral shirts, flared trousers and a purple raincoat from Just Men, should be making and selling high-speed landing craft to army brigadiers and hardened oil company managers,” he writes.

He quickly learnt to ignore sceptics, pointing out how frequently they are wrong. When Austin Morris held a focus group just before the 1959 launch of the Mini, “nobody wanted this tiny car with small wheels”, he says. Likewise the Sony Walkman was panned by critics — who’d buy a tape machine that couldn’t record? — until it became a bestseller. “You need to show [customers] new possibilities, new ideas and new products,” Dyson argues.

His first idea for a mass-market product came to him when he was restoring an old farmhouse in the Cotswolds that required shifting soil and cement by wheelbarrow. Why not use a ball instead of a wheel, he reasoned, to make manoeuvring the barrow easier and less likely to sink in muddy ground.

It was probably one of the worst times in history to start a company, Dyson reflects. “This was long before Silicon Valley start-ups. There was no help for small businesses. Loan rates peaked at 24 per cent, making it difficult to pay back the interest.” With a bank overdraft and “debt high above my eyebrows” he set up his first factory in 1974 in a row of pigsties close to his home near Badminton. The family grew their own vegetables and his wife made clothes for the children and sold paintings to make ends meet. There were no DIY chains to sell the barrows through either, so Dyson took out newspaper ads and “received a gratifying number of cheques in the post”. Finished in colourful plastic, the barrows looked fun and attractive next to drab, traditional ones.

When he moved to a bigger factory, he needed to clean the air of the powder used to coat the metal parts of the barrows so he built his own cyclonic device. It occurred to him that the same centrifugal process, scaled down in size, could be used to make a bagless vacuum cleaner. He finally came up with a working prototype in 1982 and tried to sell the idea to manufacturers. “I went to see Electrolux, Hotpoint, Miele, Siemens, Bosch, AEG, Philips — the lot — and was rejected by every one of them.”

Frustrated, he tried American companies, finally settling on Amway. After Dyson had “handed over all the drawings, prototypes, knowhow and confidential information, they decided to cancel the agreement and instigate a lawsuit to get back the money they’d paid us”. Dyson repaid the money to avoid exorbitant legal costs in the US. It was a painful lesson and the first of many run-ins with manufacturers that made Dyson assertively protective of his intellectual property, and critical of the patents system that he says “provides scant protection for the inventor”.

One reason the big companies weren’t interested is that the European market in disposable vacuum cleaner bags was worth US$500 million, Dyson says, and there were vested interests in protecting it. Unmissable in pink and lavender, his first vacuum cleaner, the Kleeneze Rotork Cyclon, was launched in 1983. It was made by a little known company called Zanussi in Italy and sold door-to-door.

When he moved production to Wales, sales of a new machine, the DC01, took off. By the mid-1990s he was outselling all other brands in the UK. Hairdryers, heaters and humidifiers followed, along with a bladeless fan he demonstrated on American television by putting his head inside it to show how it could harmlessly blow-dry hair. Even the Queen bought one.

As well as fighting court cases over patents, he took the EU to task when it enforced rules favouring rival manufacturers. Makers of conventional vacuum cleaners were exaggerating their energy efficiency by testing them when they were empty of dust. In fact they were using far more electricity because of clogged filters. His own cleaners never clogged but Brussels bureaucrats wouldn’t acknowledge it, he says. This was one reason he turned against the EU and campaigned for Brexit.

Does he stand by his views? “Reconnecting with the Commonwealth, looking to the much greater markets outside Europe and being independent I think is much more suitable for the British spirit and the way Britain trades. We’re very good at trading globally. It’s something we understand. Europe I don’t think we do understand. In any case it’s a shrinking share of the global market. It’s 13 per cent now, dropping to about 10 per cent. Whereas the fast-expanding markets are really in Asia.”

Playing devil’s advocate, I suggest that even Leave voters have been underwhelmed by some of the results of Brexit. For those who wanted better border security, for example, the “take back control” promise now has a ring as hollow as a Dyson fan.

“It’s also about independence of spirit. It’s rather like being a company taken over by a much larger conglomerate. You become less reliant on your own resources and less able to do things. Whereas if you’re on your own you’re independent, you come up with your own solutions. Of course everybody quotes it, but the vaccine is a jolly good example of that.” He points out that before Brexit it took four and a half months to recruit an engineer from overseas because of European restrictions. He says that time has been reduced, though he can’t say by how much.

Two years ago he moved his manufacturing base to Singapore. Critics rounded on him, pointing out that he’d argued for Britain to go it alone, only to take his own business offshore. Was it a tax dodge?

“Absolutely not tax-saving and not cost-saving,” he insists. “Operating 8,000 miles away is not a cheap thing to do. Actually Singapore’s standard of living is much higher than here. The wage costs are much higher there, so we certainly didn’t go for any labour saving. We went because it’s an area where people want to make things, where we can build factories in four months. It’s an area that actually encourages industry, encourages manufacturing, encourages engineering. That’s the right place for us to be.”

In any case he’s taxed on his global income, he points out. Plus, the creative bit of Dyson industries stayed in Britain and he employs 4,000 people here. What drove him overseas, he claims, was the need to increase output. “We were trying to double the size of our factory at Malmesbury. They wouldn’t give us permission. It was all referred to the secretary of state. Even the local Conservative MP came out against the factory expansion.”

Another frustration was that suppliers couldn’t keep pace with Dyson’s needs. “We ended up with no British suppliers of components, except the hose maker. Then the hose maker wouldn’t expand. He said, ‘I don’t want to take on another factory.’ We had to go and find a hose maker in Asia.”

The final straw seems to have been the government’s refusal to support his electric car project with taxpayers’ money. “As a relatively small company going to the hugely expensive and complex business of making a car, we felt we should have some government support. The Singapore government offered to help us. Greg Clark, who was [the UK] secretary of state for industry, flatly refused anything, wouldn’t even consider it. After the Singapore prime minister had offered to help us with financial help, I asked to see Theresa May as a last resort. She refused to see me.”

The Brexit referendum outcome has convinced him that power should be taken from politicians and handed to the people. He would favour a broader democratic system similar to that enjoyed by the Swiss, who can vote on a wide range of issues instead of just for political parties. “I think that’s a really good idea. I think the public in general make a much better decision than politicians.”

Another of his bugbears is education. “It makes me sad and concerned that schools are failing to teach creativity,” he writes. “Yet life today demands it more and more. The advantage in the West that we have relied upon for so long is being diminished.”

He feels so strongly that he has built his own tertiary institute at Malmesbury. From September it will be able to award degrees to Dyson students who are also paid to study (previously, degrees were endorsed by Warwick University). Places are already more oversubscribed than Oxbridge, he boasts, so much so the minimum entry requirement is two As and a B at A-level. Hang on, though. He previously said that exam results aren’t a good measure of original thinking. “People who do well at exams at school are not necessarily those who do well at work,” he says in his book. “Students are rewarded for following the train of thought set in textbooks. If they think for themselves, examiners can’t give them the marks their original minds may well deserve.”

The established exam system fails to recognise some of the best creative minds — inventors, perhaps like Dyson, and certainly like Whittle, who he concedes “wasn’t an academic at school”. As a result Britain is “missing out on a whole lot of Frank Whittles”, he declares.

So, would Whittle have been accepted for the Dyson Institute? For a moment he looks perplexed.

“Yes, he might well have.”

“But not without two As and a B?”

“No, but we’ve got a very inventive engineer who joined me when he was 16 as an apprentice.”

Before the interview concludes he acknowledges teasingly that an electric bike would fit neatly into the Dyson range. “It would, wouldn’t it?” he smiles. “I can’t deny that.”

Courteously he walks me to the door of the hangar. He wants to know what I think of the Toyota I’m driving. Not as comfortable as his super-smooth Citroëns, I say. “Ah, yes,” he beams. “You can drive the Citroën Maserati at these sleeping policemen at 50 miles an hour and it just doesn’t notice,” he says proudly. “It was hugely advanced for its time.” As I leave he’s still there, gazing down the runway.

Invention: A Life by James Dyson is published by Simon & Schuster.

Written by: Nick Rufford
© The Times of London

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