Born May 2, 1947, in Cromer, Norfolk, England; son of Alec (a teacher) and Mary (Bolton) Dyson; married Deirdre Hindmarsh (a teacher and painter), 1967; children: Emily, Jacob, Sam. Education: Attended Byam Shaw School of Art, London, England, and the Royal College of Art, London, 1966-70.
Addresses: Office—Dyson Appliances Ltd, Tetbury Hill, Malmesbury, Wiltshire SN16 0RP, United Kingdom.
With Rotork Marine, 1970-74; managing director of Kirk-Dyson, 1974-79; founded Dyson Research Ltd., 1979; chair, Dyson Ltd., 1992—. Affiliated with the Design Museum, London, for several years.
Awards: Commander of the British Empire, 1998.
American consumers first encountered the plummy, authoritative accent of Britain's James Dyson in 2002, in television commercials that starred the maverick inventor and his unique bagless vacuum cleaner. The Dyson Dual Cyclone was already a top-seller in Europe and Japan by then, and Dyson himself was somewhat of a celebrity in Britain, having become known in the 1970s as the man who, quite literally, reinvented the wheelbarrow. Though his Dyson vacuum cleaner would sell some 12 million units worldwide, the devoted tinkerer was still finessing further improvements to it. "Ideally it should weigh nothing, make no noise, and require no effort," he told People. "There's a long way to go before it's perfect."
Born in 1947, Dyson grew up in England's Norfolk countryside. His grandfather had been a headmaster, or school principal, and his father entered the profession as well, but died when Dyson was a child. He was then sent off to a boarding school, where his innate creative inclinations were sometimes discouraged. Once, he was put in charge of the programs to be handed out for a school play, and designed scrolls instead of the usual booklet. The school's headmaster was apoplectic when he saw them, and Dyson later said it was a good early lesson. He "learned that to change things and be an inventor," he told People, "you are going to come up against trouble all the time."
Dyson went on to study painting at the Byam Shaw School of Art, but later switched to furniture and interior design at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. He married a fellow art student, Deirdre Hindmarsh, and eventually settled into a job with Rotork Marine in 1970, which designed and manufactured a high-speed landing craft called the Sea Truck. One version of the flat-bottomed vessel was used by Egyptian troops to get across the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In 1974, Dyson struck out on his own, forming a firm with his sister and her husband to make the Ballbarrow. This was the first significant update of the wheelbarrow since the medieval era, and Dyson's innovation was to use a plastic ball instead of a wheel for easier maneuverability.
Like nearly all of Dyson's inventions, the idea for the Ballbarrow had been spurred by personal frustration, when several years earlier his wheelbarrow kept getting stuck in the mud when he was working in the garden. Later that decade, in 1978, he was appalled by the poor performance of his somewhat pricey new vacuum cleaner. Realizing that the "bag" system and the motor that created the suction force had some inherent flaws, he went to work on a new version. It would take him four years, and numerous legal battles. Adding to his troubles, he was ousted from the Ballbarrow company by his partners after management disagreements.
In 1979, the determined tinkerer established Dyson Research Ltd. with the help of one backer, his buyout funds from Ballbarrow, a second mortgage on his home—which by then also housed three small children—and the support of his wife, who taught school to make ends meet. After building 5,127 prototypes, Dyson finally had a workable vacuum cleaner, which had no bag and relied on centrifugal force to separate the dirt from air. He shopped it around to Black & Decker, Electrolux, and other major vacuum-cleaner manufacturers, and they were all profoundly uninterested. For the companies, the sale of replacement vacuum-cleaner bags was a profitable sideline, and few thought that consumers actually wanted to see the dirt that came off the carpets, as the see-through Dyson chamber revealed in all its filthy glory.
Dyson did manage to begin making and selling what was called the "G-Force" vacuum cleaner in Japan in 1986, and it emerged as a cult favorite, despite its rather high price tag. But then he was forced to begin suing other companies for patent infringement, and the cases dragged on for years and nearly bankrupted him. Finally, in the early 1990s he was able to build a factory in the Wiltshire area of England, after obtaining a business loan from a local bank; several other financial institutions had turned him down, but allegedly the bank manager's wife had tried his vacuum cleaner and was thrilled with it. The Dyson DC01 vacuum cleaner went on the market in Britain in 1993, and by early 1995 was the best-selling vacuum cleaner in the country. It had so many fans that it eventually entered the permanent collections of the Design Museum of London, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Design Museum of Zurich, and Paris's Centre Georges Pompidou, and has also collected a long list of industrial-design awards.
When Dyson launched his product in the United States in 2002, he began to appear in television ads for it. At a retail price of $399, the Dyson Dual Cyclone was a hit with American consumers as well, and by early 2005 had captured 20 percent of the vacuum-cleaner sales market. His company, based in Wiltshire, remains a privately held one, and Dyson himself is thought to be worth an estimated $1 billion. He prefers to remain the sole owner of the company, as he explained in an interview with Management Today's Andrew Davidson. "I cannot be bothered with the process of going round convincing other people that what I am doing is right," the man described by his wife as "stubborn" said. "And you have to do that if you don't control all of it."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dyson's company features an unusual work atmosphere: he prefers to hire recent college graduates who have never worked anywhere else, every employee must begin their training process by building their own Dyson vacuum cleaner, suits and ties are discouraged, and memos are strictly forbidden. The company's next generation of household appliances was launched in 2000 with the Contrarotator washing machine. Dyson is always searching for ways to improve daily life, and knows that his best inspiration comes from sheer daily aggravation. As he told People, "almost everything in the house bothers me."
Chicago Tribune, July 5, 2004.
HFN: The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network, February 21, 2005, p. 9.
Interior Design, December 2004, p. 74.
Management Today, July 1999, p. 72.
Marketing, August 1, 2002, p. 21.
Newsweek International, January 22, 2001, p. 50.
New York Times, August 8, 2004, p. 18.
People, December 9, 2002, p. 123.