While developing his vacuum, Sir James Dyson went through 5,126 failed prototypes and his savings over 15 years. But the 5,127th prototype worked, and the Dyson brand became the best-selling bagless vacuum brand in the United States. He is now worth an estimated $4.5 billion, according to Forbes. (Be sure to watch the video at the end where he talks about his passion vs money and thinking long-term!)
Dyson was born in Cromer, Norfolk, England, and was one of three children. James excelled in long distance running:
“I was quite good at it, not because I was physically good, but because I had more determination. I learnt determination from it.”
He spent one year (1965–1966) at the Byam Shaw School of Art, and then studied furniture and interior design at the Royal College of Art (1966–1970) before moving into engineering.
In the late 1970s, Dyson had the idea of using cyclonic separation to create a vacuum cleaner that would not lose suction as it picked up dirt. He became frustrated with his Hoover Junior’s diminishing performance: dust kept clogging the dust bag, reducing suction. (He discovered a need.) The cyclone idea came from the spray-finishing room’s air filter in his Ballbarrow factory. (He paid attention.)
Partly supported by his wife’s salary as an art teacher, and after five years and many prototypes, Dyson launched the “G-Force” cleaner in 1983. However, no manufacturer or distributor would handle his product in the UK, as it would disturb the valuable market for replacement dust bags, so Dyson launched it in Japan through catalogue sales. Manufactured in bright pink, the G-Force sold for the equivalent of £2,000. It won the 1991 International Design Fair prize in Japan. He obtained his first U.S. patent on the idea in 1986 (U.S. Patent 4,593,429).
After failing to sell his invention to the major manufacturers, Dyson set up his own manufacturing company, Dyson Ltd. In June 1993, he opened his research centre and factory in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. (There’s that determination!)
Dyson’s breakthrough in the UK market more than ten years after the initial idea, was through a TV advertising campaign in which it was emphasised that, unlike most of its rivals, it did not require the continuing purchase of replacement bags. At that time, the UK market for disposable cleaner bags was £100 million. The slogan “say goodbye to the bag” proved more attractive to the buying public than a previous emphasis on the suction efficiency that its technology delivers. Ironically, the previous step change in domestic vacuum cleaner design had been the introduction of the disposable bag — users being prepared to pay extra for the convenience. The Dyson Dual Cyclone became the fastest-selling vacuum cleaner ever made in the UK, which outsold those of some of the companies that rejected his idea and has become one of the most popular brands in the UK. In early 2005, it was reported that Dyson cleaners had become the market leaders in the United States by value (though not by number of units sold).
Following his success, other major manufacturers began to market their own cyclonic vacuum cleaners. Dyson sued Hoover UK for patent infringement and won around $5 million in damages.
Dyson set up the Foundation in 2002 to support design and engineering education. The Foundation’s aim is to inspire young people to study engineering and become engineers by encouraging students to think differently and to make mistakes.