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Reaping The Whirlwind David Wardell charts the rise of James Dyson Inventor of the Dyson Dual Cyclone Cleaner

Not many inventors become household names.  Not many inventors achieve phenomenal success with their ideas.  However, most people would recognise the name Dyson as someone who can satisfy these criteria.  Of course, the public perception of an overnight success belies the truth of a long hard struggle to attain commercial success, fame and fortune.


Indomitable Spirit


James Dyson thinks of himself as a designer, not an inventor – although, of course, he does have an inventive streak.  His early attempts at product design and development included projects such as a multi-purpose flat hulled ferryboat called the Sea Truck, and the famous Ballbarrow.  The Ballbarrow came about because James was spending a lot of time using a wheelbarrow during the renovation of his house.  This experience made him conclude that traditional wheelbarrows were incredibly badly designed – especially the thin wheel and tubular legs which left ruts in the ground.  The Ballbarrow design overcomes all of these problems and more, but it was not this invention that would bring him rewards.  Due to boardroom machinations he eventually lost control of, and involvement in, the company that had grown from the Ballbarrow’s success.  At this point, lesser men would have probably thrown in the towel.


However, like many inventors, James Dyson has an indomitable spirit, and the business mauling had given him the determination and experience to carry on.

Like the Ballbarrow, it was personal experience that led James to start thinking about vacuum cleaners.  When cleaning his own house he began to realise that conventional cleaners were inefficient.  After a short time in use there is a marked reduction in suction power.  This is because the pores of the bags or filters become blocked by small particles – even if the filter bag is only partially full.  There had to be a better way and James had the germ of an idea.


How do you collect dirt and dust without using a filter bag?  To solve this conundrum means bringing together existing technologies in new ways.  In industry there is a method of collection known as a cyclone.  These are usually very large contraptions designed to filter large volumes of air – for instance, sawmills use them for the collection of sawdust.  Due to a manufacturing problem at his own factory, James had modified and built his own cyclone to collect powder paint which was used to spray the bodies of Ballbarrows.  He surmised that if you could use a cyclone for filtering in industrial applications then perhaps it would also work in the humble traditional vacuum cleaner.


A cyclone works in a very elegant way.  If you create an air-flow inside of a cone, particles with mass are accelerated as they spin around the inner curves, In the case of the Dyson Cyclone they are accelerated up to an incredible 924mph, or about 324,000rpm.  All particles – even motes of dust or smoke – are subject to gravity and at high velocity assume great weight.  Within a cyclone the particles are subject to centrifugal force which makes them stick to the sides of the cone and simply drop down for collection.  The pure air is exhausted through a chimney at the top.


Dual Action


The principle of the cyclone is well-known, but using one for a vacuum cleaner is very difficult because it has to deal with all sorts of different sized objects – from balls of fluff and fibres to tiny flecks of dust.  The only way to

Editors note: this article first appeared in Issue 3, 1998, Inventors World Magazine and is unchanged from the original text.

make one that would work was to take a hands-on approach.  For James this would mean years of tedious development work.


Day after day was spent building and testing cyclone prototypes.  In all, James made 5,127 before his cleaner could go into production.  It took him a long time to realise that a single cyclone would not work because larger debris needs to be spun at slower speeds than tiny particles.  After a while he worked out that you could place a high-speed cyclone within a relatively low-speed one to overcome this problem.  The dual-cyclone principle was born.


Armed with his working prototype, James was now set to try and sell the idea to the vacuum cleaner companies.  Amazingly, they weren’t interested.  It was felt that because the traditional design had remained largely unchanged for nearly 100 years, why change now?  One is also inclined to think that cleaner bag sales are quite lucrative.


In Britain, James was constantly met with apathy and disinterest.  In Europe he fared little better and then turned to the USA in an effort to license his invention over there.  Despite lots of interest, and the American ‘can-do’ attitude, things didn’t go well.  Several companies started negotiations but the deals always fell through.  After finally negotiating a licence with one major manufacturer things went horribly wrong and James was forced to take legal action.  Not only was this a worrying time but USD legal fees can be cripplingly expensive.


Back in the UK, broke and depressed, James was thrown a life-line from the East.  A Japanese company, Apex Inc., expressed an interest in the design.  Eventually a deal was done and he was paid 'up-front' money, design consultancy fees and a royalty.  He spent much of the year in Japan and the product was finally launched as G-Force.  Despite a hefty price tag of £1,200 per machine, it soon became a must-have product for the fashionable man or woman about Tokyo.


Realising a Dream


This all sounds simple and straightforward, but one has to remember that the process had taken years and exacted a huge toll in terms of effort and risk.  Other licensing deals were now beginning to come on-stream, but nobody was selling cyclone cleaners in high volume.  James had always believed that his design was a mass-market product and not just destined to fill a niche.  He decided that the best person to develop, build and sell the product was himself, and set about forming a company to realise his dream.


James managed to convince Lloyds Bank to lend him £600,000 using his two homes as security.  A tidy sum, but still not enough.  The Japanese deal was not providing huge royalties so James decided to sell the Japanese rights for a one-off fee.  Thus another £750,000 was realised.  He would have made more from Japan in the long run, but James was keen to get on with things.


At first by using subcontractors, and ultimately undertaking all production in his own factory, the Dyson Dual Cyclone Cleaner has been a resounding success.  Within a few short years Dyson cleaners have become the market leaders and Dyson Appliances the fastest growing UK manufacturing company.  In 1996 James Dyson achieved what many believed would be impossible – the first British manufacturer of domestic electrical goods to export to Japan.


Dyson products are still constantly being improved and re-designed.  James has shown that adapted cyclones can also be used to filter out soot from diesel car and lorry exhaust, and is now on a quest to introduce this technology.  He believes that with some political will behind the project, we would all benefit from the reduction of this noxious substance and resulting improved air quality.  As he has found in the past, it is difficult to convince the motor manufacturers that something should be done – especially when it involves higher cost.  He also tantalisingly promises more inventions and designs from the Dyson studios.


In the end, after years of hard work, frightening debt problems, terrible legal battles with US infringers, illness and at times near despair, James Dyson has shown that one man can invent a new technology, manufacture it himself, market it himself and – best of all – topple the market leaders.  Thanks to him, perhaps in the future some manufacturers may be less inclined to scoff when approached with a new idea.

Further Inventricity  Reading:

Cleaning Up!

Dyson's DC06

Prototyping was a long and tedious process

Dyson DC01

A later model - note the increase in cyclones

James Dyson with his DC01.



Sea Truck

Related further reading (and product)...

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