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Last Updated: Friday, 23 May, 2003, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
James Dyson: Patently passionate
Chris Jones
BBC News Profiles Unit

James Dyson: always looking for a better way

His latest brainwave transfixed visitors at the Chelsea Flower Show as they tried to puzzle out how water could apparently defy gravity. While his ingenious feature was just an illusion, the bagless vacuum cleaner man, James Dyson, says he's frustrated by the real uphill struggle facing British inventors.

"If I am honest, I would rather have been an inventor in the Victorian era than now", says Dyson.

Modern Britain is unsympathetic to inventors, he claims: "The sheer cost of a patent is prohibitive, at around 10,000, and the heavy burden of bureaucracy and taxation makes it far more expensive to make anything here than in the developing world."

Dyson's own climb to an estimated fortune of 650m was a long, hard ascent.

James Dyson with his waterfall at the Chelsea Flower Show
James Dyson, master of intrigue, with his Chelsea waterfall
He attributes his resilience and determination to the death of his father from lung and throat cancer. James Dyson was nine at the time and a boarder at Gresham's school in Norfolk, where his father taught classics.

Although Dyson says his mother, who also died of cancer, was "wonderful", he found it hard to ask for help, a reluctance it seems he has retained all his life.

"I was also afraid that I was vulnerable and might die," he said. "I think that is what gave me a peculiar self-reliance. I had huge determination to succeed."

Mother of invention

It was in the early 70s, after the Royal College of Art, and a conventional spell of salaried employment, that he enjoyed some success with one of his early inventions, the Ballbarrow, which wouldn't ruin the lawn or list to one side.
James Dyson
Born: Cromer, Norfolk, May 2, 1947, the youngest of three children
Married: in 1968 to Deirdre, who he met at art school in Kensington, west London
Children: Emily, 31; Jacob, 30; Sam, 24.

Dyson struck out on his own, with his wife's full approval. "I just thought it was brilliant," she said, even though it was to mean 28 years of growing debts and shouldering the greater share of raising their three children, a responsibility she bore gladly.

While renovating their home in the Cotswolds, frustration became the mother of James Dyson's most successful invention, when he determined there must be something more efficient than his decrepit Junior Hoover.

Inspiration arrived from the sight of a neighbouring timber mill with a 30ft-high cone using centrifugal forces to suck up sawdust - like a cyclone.


But Dyson built more than 5,000 prototypes before he was satisfied his no-bag vacuum cleaner could perform that role sufficiently well.

Then, only the Japanese were interested, and it was profits earned there that enabled the first Dyson, the Dual Cyclone 01, to eventually go on sale in Britain several years later, in 1993.

It was soon hurting the opposition, so much so that Hoover had to be stopped by the High Court from infringing the patent and later paid Dyson 4m damages.

James Dyson's Ballbarrow
The Ballbarrow was an early Dyson winner
Not that everyone has been swept off their feet by the Dyson bagless, while Which magazine was not convinced that his washing machine offered the best value for money.

And last year there was bitterness among some of the 800 workers whose jobs disappeared when its owner switched production of his vacuum cleaners to Malaysia, with its lower labour costs - although for 210 of them other jobs were found at Dyson's headquarters.

Even so, the Contrarotator washing machine is still made at the Dyson plant at Malmesbury in Wiltshire.

Aware of his lifestyle, some workers accused him of greed.

Apart from his Wiltshire home, a converted millhouse in the village of Little Somerford - which was once owned by rock star Van Morrison and movie mogul David Puttnam - Dyson has a 3m mansion in Provence and a town house in Chelsea.

Dyson is no pipe-smoking, cardigan-clad, eccentric boffin, driving an ancient Morris Minor. He drives a Range Rover.

James Dyson with his Dual Cyclone cleaner
James Dyson's bagless vacuum cleaner copies the action of a cyclone
He abhors smoking, devoting substantial sums to cancer research, and labelling the only smoking facility at his high-tech research complex in Malmesbury "cancer corner".

His clothes are expensive, but he favours Indian or Chinese-influenced jackets, rather than a uniform of suit and tie, which is banned at Dyson HQ, along with memos and recirculated air.

"Can-do" culture

"I don't want my employees thinking like businessmen. They are suited pen-pushers who stifle creativity and only think about money."

Money, you are persuaded, has never been Dyson's chief motive, but he thinks people who make things are more entitled to get rich than the wheeler-dealers of the City.

He yearns for a Britain with a "can-do" culture to encourage people to be like his hero, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

And in his autobiography, James Dyson reveals his secret dream: "That one day, Dyson will replace 'Hoover' and become a noun, a verb, out there on its own, long after I am forgotten."


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