16 MARCH 2022

Murder to Excellence

Making good things great, iterations fuelled by frustration and meaningful impact


It is likely you are familiar with the brand name, or have directly interacted with one of the many Dyson products out there in the wild, whether it is the vacuum cleaner or the hair dryer you have at home or when drying your hands at a public washroom with an Airblade.

It turns out that James Dyson, the inventor and entrepreneur behind the brand, has been innovating and creating since the 1970s — these everyday products that are available today have spent a long time in the making.

A snapshot of the Dyson product line

Making good things great

Recently, I got to read ‘Invention: A Life’, the autobiography by James Dyson himself, after being inspired from listening to him talk on The Tim Ferriss Show.

Three things had caught my curiosity from listening to that episode:

So we thought, “Well, this makes a really good hand dryer.” So we made a hand dryer. And it so happened that this was the first application of the new technology motor we’re developing. So we developed a motor that went 120,000 RPM instead of the normal 30,000 RPM.

120,000 RPM, by the way, is very fast.

I mean, a jet engine is 15,000 RPM, and a Formula 1 engine is about 19,000 at maximum. So we were taking electric motors from 30,000 up to 120,000, and in a hand dryer, not a sophisticated product, in a hand dryer and a vacuum cleaner. But it gave us great air flow and great pressure, and pressure was important for this air blade.

James Dyson

Iterations fuelled by frustration

Most people who know of the Dyson name might think about the range of his everyday products, of vacuum cleaners, hand dryers, fans or hair straighteners — the genesis innovation that brought him to mass market was in fact the vacuum cleaner.

It took four years of being sunk in debt and the infamous 5,127 prototypes to deliver the first vacuum cleaner to market by 1983, but even before this Dyson had been innovating and building stuff. There was the high speed, flat-bottomed boat called the ‘Sea Truck’ he developed when working for the company Rotork , followed by the ‘Ballbarrow’ which was sparked from some personal frustration about the antiquated design of typical wheelbarrows.

This story of personally feeling the pain of using a poorly-performing product was one that repeats. Dyson was cleaning his house one day with a traditional bagged vacuum cleaner, and he was frustrated by the machine’s lack of suction. To solve the problem, he went out and bought a replacement bag and soon realised that while the suction was much stronger with a fresher bag, the improved performance was only temporary and rapidly declined as soon as dust started to clog up the bag.

He realised that vacuum cleaner manufacturers were prioritising the margin made from repeat sales of vacuum cleaner bags, rather than producing a product that could reliably perform.

Deeming this as something unacceptable to live with, he then went onto the journey of trying to fix this problem himself — applying cyclonic dedusting technology, which he had witnessed through observing unrelated industrial-scale operations, to the the household vacuum cleaner. The innovation challenge was in improving the cyclonic separation efficiency from 20 micron (0.02 millimetres), which the industrial-scale equipment was performing at, down to a machine capable of dealing with household dust, below 1 micron (0.001 millimetres).

4 years and 5,127 prototypes later came the first bagless vacuum cleaner, the Dyson G-force in 1983. Dyson would have been 46 years old at the time. The next iteration, DC01, arrived in 1993.

The pink vacuum cleaner was a rave hit in Japanese markets
The poorer you are, the more important vacuuming is to you. Probably the more house proud you are because you actually do the vacuuming.

So I think there’s an assumption that because the vacuum cleaner is expensive, it’s bought by people with money. Whilst that might be true, there’s also a great deal of interest by people who don’t have much money and it’s a very important purchase for them.

James Dyson

Things did not just end there once Dyson had ‘made it’. Many, many further iterations of the bagless vacuum cleaner continued to be engineered, then came explorations into washing machines, the Dyson Hyperdymium digital motor, cordless stick vacuums, the hand dryers, air purifying fans and supersonic hair dryers. Then the Dyson electric car, Dyson strawberries and the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology which is a university where undergraduates are paid to work at Dyson and prepare to become the next generation’s engineers and designers.

Meaningful impact

When we think about the greatest engineers, designers, thinkers, innovators and creators, the names that come to mind are of people who were able to achieve great things on massive scales. Often times, great, unimaginable things on unprecedented scales.

Modern day names include Elon Musk, Jacqueline Novogratz and Steve Jobs.

Elon Musk, ex-cofounder of Paypal and Zip2, is doing everything he can to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy and make rockets reusable to the end goal of unlocking a future of humans becoming a multi-planet species. Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of Acumen, spearheading the domain of impact investing and of using patient capital to tackle poverty. Steve Jobs, the eminent co-founder of Apple, who changed the worlds of computers, music and films.

Perhaps greatness could be defined by a) quantity and b) quality of impact. Across all these names, and these are only 3 of the countless incredible humans pushing humanity forward, one core message comes to mind:

Meaningful impact comes from uplifting human quality of life.

Dyson might not have made rockets or invented the iPhone, but what he has made certainly uplifts the quality of life of people everywhere, through the high leverage everyday things that he has made accessible to the entire world.

Through living a life dedicated to excellence, persistence and an unsatiable curiosity for making good things great — and the art of enjoying every single moment of it.

A life of perpetual learning, pursuing science, engineering and technology, has certainly been a truly magical and fulfilling adventure… for an engineer, the creative impulse, the desire to improve things and the need to solve problems are a state of mind that cannot be switched off…

The adage that the only certainty is change is true, and this means not being afraid of change even if, for a company, it means dismantling what you have built in order to rebuild it stronger or killing your own successful product with a better one

- James Dyson