Sir James Dyson: From Barrows to Billions

January 30, 2019

Today he is one of the UK’s richest men and a well-known supporter of Brexit, but how did Sir James Dyson make his fortune?

Sir James Dyson’s most profitable idea began with some humble cardboard and sticky tape.

One day, in the late 1970s, it struck him that the industrial dust extractor at his factory could perhaps be scaled down for use in the home.

The machine in his factory had a potentially blockbuster feature that had never been used in domestic appliances before. It did not need a bag to collect dust; instead it spun air really fast, creating a cyclone that flung dust outwards where it could be collected.

He realised the potential was there for a bag-free and more efficient machine.

Sir James rushed back to his house, dismantled his vacuum cleaner and attached a cyclone device, hastily made from cardboard and sticking tape.

“I started pushing it around the room and it worked,” he told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs in 1999.

Four years, and more than 5,000 prototypes later, he had a machine that worked to his satisfaction.

Seaside and sand dunes

It was not obvious from Sir James’s schooling and early college years that he would become a leading inventor and industrial designer.

Sir James, whose father died when he was a child, grew up in Norfolk in the 1950s. Speaking about his childhood he said, “Money was very unimportant and what was much more important to me, and was a greater gift, was the countryside, the seaside, the sand dunes, the freedom.”

Having studied art at school, he went on to art college in London where the principal suggested that he go into design.

He became influenced by the ideas of US architect and designer Buckminster Fuller, known for elegant domes.

“Here was an engineer creating this engineering structure which was incredibly beautiful, without even trying to be beautiful.

“Its elegance came not from its styling but from its engineering and I latched on to that.”

Inspired by such work, he helped design the Sea Truck, a high-speed boat, built for beach landings.

Designs and debts

But Sir James wanted his own project and that came in 1974 – a wheelbarrow that featured a large spherical plastic wheel. The ballbarrow was designed to be easier to fill, empty and manoeuvre than existing barrows.

The invention was a commercial success, but in building the business Sir James lost control to outside investors and it was sold against his wishes.

It was an experience he was determined not to repeat with his next invention, the bagless vacuum cleaner.

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