Sir James Dyson is many things. He’s a genius, an inventor, designer and a quintessential British gentleman. He’s renowned for pushing the boundaries of innovation and fixing things that never needed repair to innovate some of the coolest appliances on the planet. He lives to fix problems the world can’t see, but what most people don’t think of is the fact that Sir James is still a human being, with problems even he can’t solve.
The softly-spoken Sir James Dyson invented his first product in the 1970s when he pioneered the idea of cyclonic vacuums. Like all of his inventions, however, Sir James didn’t invent the product out of sheer passion for vacuums, he just saw a problem that needed fixing. His vacuum got clogged easily as it picked up dust and dirt, so he wanted to fix it. Sir James Dyson has amassed a personal fortune of nearly $2 billion from fixing things around his house that bothered him.
Since his take on the vacuum in the 1970s, he and his now 4000-strong company has gone on to innovate new takes on the vacuum, the fan, the heater and now the humble bathroom tap. Dyson was in town yesterday for the briefest of moments and he sat down one-on-one with Gizmodo Australia to talk about the problems he can’t solve, as well as the need for patents and whether he wants to challenge Elon Musk as the next billionaire in space.
Sir James sees himself as an innovator, but not as a legend. He’s just a handyman with a passion. A softly spoken Mr Fix-It in a nice suit.
“I think like anyone else, things don’t work properly or I get irritated and I just want to fix things. I just like solving those problems,” he tells me with a curious glint in his eye. “Sometimes they are quite difficult to install, problems that have been around for ages that may actually be difficult to solve. Problems like electric motors for example.
“We made great leaps forward with electric motors to make them smaller in size, faster speed and more reliable. We were dissatisfied with brush-type motors, so we developed totally new digital motors where the switching is not done mechanically, it’s done digitally. That can set up a whole chain of interesting products just using that technology,” he adds.
Sir James isn’t just blowing smoke from his own pipe, either. The new motor inside the Dyson Tap Dryer, for example, has a chip inside it which, unlike other motors, switches its polarity magnetically to get it the mechanism spinning faster. As a result, it spins at a dizzying 110,000 RPM — it’s a wonder it doesn’t have its own moon. Compare Dyson’s motor to a Formula 1 car which has an engine ten times the size which spins at only 19,000 RPM, and you realise what sort of innovations Sir James is going for. The faster, more efficient motor can be put in new Dyson products to make them more efficient, both in their operation and their power efficiency.
The pollution from car motors, however is a problem that Dyson himself can’t solve.
“We were looking at diesel exhaust pollution for a number of years because we believe that the fumes that come out of diesel pollution are carcinogenic. They have now proven to be in rats, so we were developing a solution to that when suddenly all the car manufacturers said they were going to fit ceramic traps to trap the diesel [pollution] and I think some of them now have, but they aren’t in incredibly high use and they’re very difficult to maintain.
“That’s a problem that we worked on for ten years and have since given up, and I do look back in regret on that that I didn’t carry on with it.”
Sir James Dyson resides in the world’s collective consciousness as one of the great inventors, entrepeneurs and innovators of our time. He sits at a hypothetical dinner table with other great minds like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, Nikola Tesla and Rick Moranis’ character from Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.
Elon Musk in particular is one of those crazy billionaires currently making waves in the media for launching his own private space program and re-inventing electric transport. No big deal.
Musk is known for being smart as a whip, and so ambitious that you could easily mistake him for a genius-level Bond villain. SpaceX — Musk’s own mission to Mars — recently docked with the International Space Station, while Tesla is revolutionising luxury electric cars.
The unofficial genius club that Musk shares with folks like Sir Dyson and other inventors is one that you would imagine is fiercely competitive, with each trying to out-do the other’s inventions, but Sir Dyson isn’t buying into the unspoken competition between himself and Musk.
“When you’re done fixing the problems down here,” I ask Dyson, “would you want to go and solve problems in space like Elon?”
Sir Dyson laughs in his quiet, British way, before leaning back in his chair and exclaiming “absolutely not!” Instead, he he wants to fix “ordinary things”.
“I rather like ordinary things like hand dryers and vacuum cleaners and heaters and fans, I think there’s such a lot of improvement that can be made there. We’re never satisfied with technology,” he says, still laughing at my slightly misguided space question.
“Batteries for example are not satisfactory, they’re too big, heavy and expensive. Electric motors, too, we can go on improving those, so that we can make them much smaller and much faster. Everywhere I look, I’m dissatisfied and there are things I can make better.
“I don’t need to go to outer space to fix those.”
Whether competitive or not, Sir Dyson jealously guards his intellectual property. He secured his first patent back in 1986 and spent much of the last few years calling for broad patent system reform, not to choke innovation, but to safeguard its future.
“If you drop patents, no-one will develop anything any more,” he says with a sad tone, like a pet just died.
“Nobody will spend a lot of money on long-term research to make new technology work because they’ll just be copied instantly. The thing about plagiarists is that they haven’t had to have the development costs, they haven’t had the launch costs and they haven’t taken the risk. They just look to see what is successful and copy it. Clearly, if people are allowed to do that, people will just stop developing technology. That’s suicidal!
“Patents are an imperfect system, though. They were designed by Henry VIII and were given a 20-year life and haven’t changed much since, but they are a system which still works.”
So what does billionaire James Dyson see as the next big thing? Google Glass is sweeping the world, as is the rumour that Apple will design a watch. Wearable technology is set to be worth around $1.5 billion by 2014 if stuffed-shirt analysts are to be believed.
But despite the forecast, Sir James doesn’t believe that wearables are where the ball is going, at least for his company. He believes that innovation in chemistry, minerals and how they apply to technology will be most important over the next half-century.
“Wearable technology isn’t something I’m getting interested in at the moment, no. We’re very interested in new materials, though. We’re sponsoring research into very interesting new materials, but flexible glass isn’t one of them yet.
“I see materials as one of the new areas of breakthrough in the future. They haven’t been in the last 50 years, but they will be from now onwards. Materials like Carbon-60 and new uses of glass and materials we haven’t even heard of or thought of that are going to change technology dramatically. Just think of photovoltaic cells, for example: at the moment they’re not efficient enough, but when they become efficient enough they’re going to transform so many products in our lives.”
Make no mistake, Sir James Dyson can change the world with his inventions. The curious thing is that you’ll see these innovations in fans and hand dryers before you see them in cars and rockets.