A Day in the Life of James Dyson: British inventor and industrial designer James Dyson radically reinvents the familiar

A Day in the Life of James Dyson

British inventor and industrial designer James Dyson radically reinvents the familiar


Dec. 5, 2013 12:23 p.m. ET


Dyson examines a prototype of the DC41 Animal vacuum cleaner with a team of his engineers. He has a famously young workforce cherry-picked straight from school. Photography by Ben Roberts for WSJ. Magazine

JAMES DYSON IS BEST KNOWN as the man who made vacuum cleaners sexy. In 1993, the Norfolk native launched the DC01, the world’s first bagless cleaner with cyclone technology, which lets users ogle their dirt as it’s sucked into the machine.“Market research told us nobody wanted to see dirt, but I thought they were wrong and ignored them,” says 66-year-old Dyson. His instincts were right: Last year, his self-named company raked in nearly $200 million and sold over 50 million products worldwide. In the U.K., his sleekly designed revamps of classic appliances—hand dryers, vacuums, fans—have a near-fanatical cult following. Some devotees have even gone so far as to name their children Dyson.


On a typical day, Dyson collaborates with a handful of his thousand-strong squad of designer-engineers on top-secret projects, many of them five to ten years away from completion. He has invented everything from a bladeless fan to a high-speed landing craft known as the “sea truck”—one of which is parked outside his vast campus-like factory and development center in Malmesbury, about 95 miles west of London. Security at headquarters is extremely tight. Since the inception of his first vacuum cleaner, Dyson’s company has had to fight countless patent infringement lawsuits in court, and was even involved in an industrial espionage scandal with a rival manufacturing company in 2012. Employees must use a fingerprint scanner to enter the building and, even then, access to most research and development areas is highly restricted.

When he’s not at work in Malmesbury, Dyson splits his time between London, where he has an apartment; his family home in rural Gloucestershire; and an estate in France. He and his wife of 45 years, Deirdre, have three children together: Emily owns Kensington fashion boutique Couverture and the Garbstore, while their two sons—Sam, a musician, and Jake, a lighting designer—joined the board of their father’s holding company this year. Dyson is also a philanthropist on a personal crusade to revive Britain’s manufacturing industry and address its current shortage of engineers—a segment of the workforce he sees as crucial to a thriving economy. He and other CEOs like Angela Ahrendts (formerly of Burberry, she will join Apple next year) advocate for this agenda as members of the prime minister’s business advisory group. Visits to 10 Downing Street are among the few occasions when one can glimpse Dyson, famously casual, wearing a suit and tie.


James Dyson

The British inventor on the beauty of engineering and his problem with science fiction

Updated Feb. 8, 2013 2:49 p.m. ET

BILLIONAIRE, KNIGHT and inventor James Dyson has created some of the most wantonly over-engineered cleaning machines known to man. His hand-held vacuums are outfitted with blazing-fast digital motors, his washing machines (no longer in production) with Formula One race-car bearings. The 4,200-person company that bears his name spends roughly $1.5 million each week on research and development—which amounts to a brute-force technological assault on life’s most basic chores.

Wielding a Dyson product can feel like overkill, and that is part of the appeal. The Dyson Airblade Tap, Mr. Dyson’s newest invention, takes the high-tech/quotidian mashup to new heights. This motion-sensing faucet, intended for public restrooms, both washes and dries hands right at the sink. It scrapes away (rather than evaporates) water using two jets of HEPA-filtered air that reach top speeds of 430 mph and are powered by a proprietary motor that accelerates from a dead stop to 95,000 rpm in 0.7 second flat.

Mr. Dyson, 65, created his first consumer product—a wheelbarrow with a ball in place of a wheel—in 1974. It was followed nearly two decades later by his now famous cyclonic vacuum and, later, fans without blades. When he’s not dreaming up miraculous tools, Mr. Dyson, a father to three, spends his time promoting the study of design engineering through the James Dyson Foundation, tending his 300-acre estate in Gloucestershire (where he lives with his wife, Deirdre), vacationing at his farmhouse in Provence and, incidentally, avoiding science fiction. He spoke to us by phone from Dyson headquarters, in Wiltshire.

A drawing board is part of my life. Up until the fifth of November, 1988, we did everything on drawing boards; on that day, in came the big computers, and the drawing board bit stopped. I’ve got a Heron Parigi board, which has a lovely engineering movement. It’s a very beautiful object.

I greatly admire the Mini. I’m not talking about the skirt; I’m talking about the car. I love the brief, which was to make a 10-foot-long car take a family and their luggage. And I love the fact that it wasn’t styled. If you go back to the ’50s, when the Mini was designed, there were all those wonderful Ford Thunderbirds and things like that around. The Mini is totally unstyled, unfussy, simple—a complete enigma in its era—and so it looks absolutely as good today as when it was first done.

I often go out and play with a JCB Backhoe Loader. You can re-landscape and plant trees very quickly with one. It’s a wonderful piece of engineering, using the lever principle and hydraulics to create enormous strength. The backhoe arm becomes an extension of your own arm. It’s almost anthropomorphic—as though you were clawing at the earth, but you’re doing a huge amount of damage immediately. I fell in a ditch in it once and nearly tipped one down a very steep hill, so you have to be careful. But it’s enormous fun.

I love Provence because the sunlight and the sky are clearer and brighter there than anywhere I know. The smell of the lavender and the thyme and the pine—the combination is very heady and lovely. And I love Paris because of what [city planner Georges-Eugène] Haussmann did. The buildings are extraordinary.

I love New York for almost the opposite reason—that it isn’t quaint and gentle. It’s brutal and huge and monumental. And it always comes up with solutions to city problems before anybody else. I love those wonderful, engineered bridges—the Brooklyn Bridge and the George Washington Bridge.

The 9/11 Memorial is a lovely site. It was very clever to have inverted a fountain.

I’m a huge admirer of ’60s and ’70s design. I’ve surrounded myself with quite a lot of that. My space is very simple. I tend not to like very modern furniture—the sort that tries to be art objects rather than good, simple furniture.

Sometimes you see a bit of technology working in one application and you wonder whether that might solve the problem that’s been gnawing away at your brain. That’s how the vacuum cleaner worked. I went to a lumber yard one day to buy some tinder and saw these massive 30-foot high cyclones collecting the sawdust on top of the roof. So I rushed home and started building small cyclones.

Britain shouldn’t turn its back on industry. The Web is fascinating and transformative, but it’s an easy, flashy, get-rich-quick option to the hard graft of proper industry. We still need MRI scanners and cars and vacuum cleaners. The way to grow long-term wealth and create employment unfortunately isn’t the Web; it’s proper manufacturing.

My interest in film is sort of catholic—apart from science fiction and horror movies, I’ll watch almost everything. The film that affected me most was “The Stoning of Soraya M.”

I used to listen to music when I worked on my own, but when I got successful enough to employ other people, I stopped imposing my music on them. But I have a great love of chamber and choral music, and I’ve come to love opera, as most old people seem to. We host an opera at our house once a year and invite friends.

At school, I enjoyed playing the bassoon. I was in the orchestra and played the melody when the other boys sang hymns at prayers time.

The one object I can’t live without are my Cutler and Gross glasses. They’re by young designers that started in London and now have a New York shop.

My favorite meal is at Le Bernardin in New York. Of course the thing to have there is fish, fish and fish—lobster if they’ve got it. And a lemon tart to finish it off.

The smartest toy for children is a woodworking set—one with a smallish saw, a hammer, a screwdriver and a chisel. Children need to be supervised, but they can use it to create things instead of just pressing a button.

One of my heroes is Buckminster Fuller. He turned me intoan engineer. I discovered him when I was a student in the mid-’60s, training to be an architect. He was an engineer and architect and designer and inventor all rolled into one. I could see the excitement of inventing a new bit of technology and making it happen.

An utterly beautiful design was the US Pavilion at Expo ’67, the geodesic dome. Buckminster Fuller’s realization that a roof needn’t be this great heavy structure that roofs had always been—that it should really be a very light eggshell-type structure—was one of the greatest ecological movements of all time.

I hate science fiction. And I hate, I’m afraid to say, things like Harry Potter. I don’t think science fiction is very clever, to be honest. It’s very easy to imagine what the world would be like. The difficult thing is making the world a better place and making things work better.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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