James Dyson on Creating a Vacuum that Actually, Well, Sucks

It took James Dyson 5,127 prototypes, 14 years of debt, and multiple lawsuits to create a vacuum that actually, well, sucked.

By Margaret Heffernan from Reader's Digest | February 2009
James DysonCourtesy of DysonDyson's newest vacuum pivots on a ball.

Exasperated with his vacuum, James Dyson took some cardboard, kitchen scissors, and duct tape and patched together his first bagless machine. With some trepidation, he switched it on. “There were no explosions, no blasts of dusty air,” Dyson recalls of that day in 1978.

“I was the only man in the world with a bagless vacuum cleaner!”

The British inventor could not have known then that it would take thousands more prototypes—and years of debt, lawsuits, fury, and frustration—before he manufactured what is now the top-selling upright vacuum cleaner in the United States. Along the way, he would discover the simple secret to success: “People buy products if they’re better.”

Dyson, 61, didn’t start out as an engineer. He had trained at the Royal College of Art in London. There he’d discovered a love of industrial design and collaborated on his first product, the Sea Truck, an indestructible boat for hauling just about anything between islands. He started his first company to manufacture and sell another invention, the Ballbarrow, a radical redesign of the wheelbarrow that used a ball to stabilize an otherwise wobbly vehicle. Garden center owners giggled nervously, but customers got it. “People will make leaps of faith and get excited by your product,” says Dyson, “if you just get it in front of them.” But disagreements with the board led Dyson to leave his company and his invention. In his “naked naïveté,” as he puts it, he had assigned the patent to the company rather than to himself. It was a mistake he wouldn’t make again.

Not one to suffer setbacks, Dyson set to work on perfecting the vacuum. Key to his innovative design was a cyclone, a cone spinning so fast that its centrifugal force sucked up dust and flung it at the canister’s walls. He hoped to license the design to European companies already in the business, but he encountered a chronic defensiveness: If there were a better way to make vacuums, surely the market leaders would have found it.

In 1986, eight years after his original breakthrough, Dyson licensed his designs to a Japanese company. The deal didn’t give him a significant cut of the annual $20 million in sales, but it was enough to keep him going while he looked for a U.S. manufacturer.

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