No blades, no buffeting is the strapline of Sir James Dyson’s latest innovative product, the Air Multiplier fan. You certainly couldn’t accuse its inventor of being like that. Emollient and smooth he is not. But he is very passionate about what he believes in.
And one thing he loathes viscerally is the parasitical financial system that has brought the UK economy to its knees. Wealth for wealth’s sake simply won’t do. Why can’t we make money from actually making things? As we used to, he might have added.
It’s a fair question, and in posing it authoritatively Dyson lays claim to being the latest in a long but thinning line of great British engineers: James Watt, Matthew Boulton, George Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Frank Whittle. When I say “engineers” I mean they were – like Archimedes – far more besides: inventors, fearless contrarians, entrepreneurs and industrialists rather than merely technical experts or industrial designers (though they were certainly that as well).
Somewhere, in the later 19th century, Britain took a wrong turn. It forsook the straight and narrow path of technological innovation, at which it had excelled, for the broad and spacious ways of Mammon. Without thinking, we lionise celebrities; yet, as Dyson eloquently points out, nowhere in Britain will you find a statue of his hero Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine. Why is that?
There was finance aplenty, even in the Depression, but almost no one was interested in Whittle’s idea at the time. Least of all the Air Ministry, which fought him tooth and nail until a race against time with Nazi Germany eventually forced them into producing the Gloster Meteor jet fighter.
As with war, so with financial disaster. Both can be accelerants of change. Certainly change is what Dyson hopes will emerge from the current recession. A strong technology sector would have defensive qualities in a downturn, and help to redress the imbalance in our economy produced by flaky financial services. With this in mind, he has already nailed his colours to the mast of the Conservative Party, as leader of a taskforce on innovation.
His own (privately-owned) company is the living proof of Dyson Economic Theory. The foundation of his £500m fortune was the cyclonic vacuum cleaner (USP, it doesn’t lose suction as the drum fills up with dust, unlike conventional cleaners). It was brought to market in the teeth of extraordinary scepticism from the manufacturing and financial communities. Once it proved a best-seller – quickly consigning most conventional cleaners to oblivion – Dyson found himself involved in a seemingly endless legal guerrilla war to forestall his rivals from ripping off the proprietary technology. Today, a triumphant Sir James can afford to smile tolerantly at all this, as he sits atop one third of the market by value in the US and UK. It is achievements like this which have enabled him to grow his profits even during the recession. Not many of us can say that.
Whether Dyson’s achievement lays a template for others to follow I’m not so sure. There have been plenty of failures along the way (as there usually are with pioneers) – most conspicuously the twin-drum washing machine. It takes a particular kind of pig-headed genius to stare disaster in the face and yet remain unalterably convinced that your idea is the right one.
One-off or not, Dyson has already secured a place in history. It may not be the heroic, romantic legacy of a Brunel, with his bridges, tunnels, railways and steamships. But it is one we can’t fail to notice, in our living rooms, utility cupboards and – in the case of the Airblade – our public conveniences as well. And, unlike Brunel, Dyson will never die a near-pauper.