Inventor James Dyson: 'The path to discovery is full of mistakes'

For example, he once made 5,127 prototypes of a vacuum

Toby Madden/eyevine/Redux

Recently I had lunch at my neighbourhood mall, and afterwards I retired to the food-court facilities to wash my hands. Done with rinsing, I looked, as is my wont, for the paper-towel dispenser. It wasn’t where it normally was. Nor was the air hand-dryer, of the standard useless type that had turned me into a paper-towel devotee in general. In place of both was a waist-high, pewter-coloured apparatus with a pair of scooped, hand-shaped cut-outs, bordered in canary-yellow plastic. Dyson Airblade, read the name on the machine. “Insert hands to dry. Raise and lower hands through airflow. Your hands will be dry in 12 seconds.” I inserted my hands, feeling like a bit of an idiot. The machine hummed on immediately; the air that assaulted me was like a blade, albeit a room-temperature blade, powerful and sharp, but pleasantly so. Hoping against hope, I counted to 12. I removed my hands.

They were dry.

My hands were dry. It was a miracle. Here was a hand-dryer that actually worked, and not only worked, but worked without using heat to evaporate the water on my hands; instead it scraped it off with 640 km/h blades of forced cool air, in the process saving 80 per cent in electrical costs and making the Airblade more environmentally sustainable and hygienic than hot air dryers or paper towels. It was enough to make me want to find the person responsible, and offer him my congratulations and gratitude.

That person is James Dyson, the 65-year-old founder of Dyson Appliances Ltd., a British-based company best known for its extremely hip line of revolutionary bagless vacuum cleaners, the Dual Cyclones. The vacuums are most famous for being uniquely stylish and uniquely expensive at once (the basic model in Canada runs about $600). It was the Dual Cyclone that Dyson invented in the 1970s because his old Hoover vacuum kept clogging and losing suction, that took 20 years and 5,127 prototypes to perfect, that almost ruined Dyson several times over in the process, and that eventually earned him a knighthood in 2006 and enough euros to qualify as a billionaire and the fourth-richest man in England. Along the way he also invented the Dyson Ballbarrow (a wheelbarrow with a ball in place of the traditional wheel), the Dyson Air Multiplier (a fan with no blades) and the Dyson Contrarotator (a washing machine that mimics the action of hand-washing by using two opposite-spinning drums instead of one). All were as eye-catching as the Dual Cyclone. For my money, though, they were just dress rehearsals for the Airblade. My hands were dry.

The week the Airblade entered my life, James Dyson was in London opening the Dyson Building at his alma mater, the Royal College of Art. Like the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, another slim, cool-nerd rebel who was fond of wearing black, Dyson came to the engineering universe via the world of arts and design. Jobs took calligraphy, and Dyson, after a checkered apprenticeship as an actor, drifted into furniture design. But where Jobs could be austere, Dyson is modest and approachable and explains what he makes in down-to-earth terms, like the science teacher you always wished you had. On the other hand, he’s also a fierce booster of British do-it-yourself-ism, a sworn enemy of what he sees as a chronic British creative inferiority complex. “Tangible things designed and engineered in Britain will be our trump card in the global technology export race,” he’s said. “Real exports, not digital fads, will lead the way.”

When Dyson dedicated the building bearing his name, he announced it would house 40 business incubators where young engineers and designers could foment British invention. There were several start-ups that caught Dyson’s eye, including Loowatt, a waterless toilet designed to produce biogas for heating and cooking, and Lumberlock, a furniture-connector system that lets designers fit a square peg into a round hole (Lego, say, meets M.C. Escher). It echoed a Dyson Foundation initiative at Vancouver’s Science World: the engineering lab, which is expected to be visited by thousands of children. “Canadians,” Dyson has said, spreading his no-nonsense zeal, “like new technology.”

Canadians—and almost everyone else—certainly like Dyson technology. A long trail of Airblade lovers (and detractors) is already up and running online. One blogger recorded his daily emotions under the heading My Love Affair with the Dyson AirbladeTM: “Tuesday = Admiration. Holy s–t that really is a blade of air! Look how thin the gap is! The sensor is so precise! The curves are strong but elegant! The basin has the perfect shape for disintegrating the water molecules and any bacteria in it! . . . This thing rules!” The negative reactions range from a mainly British backlash against the whole Dyson über-design phenomenon (“[Airblades] have the potential to be confused with urinals; I saw a drunkard in Ealing making this error”) to acute germophobia (“The most hygienic hand-dryer? Not if you touch the insides and top rim, which I often do as it’s so tight”). This weird fastidiousness was remarkably common. One skeptic pointed out, “I’ve used the Dyson Airblade many times without touching the sides! I assume you must have extremely large, fat hands, or a nervous twitch?”

A more credible reservation, as with all things Dyson, has to do with price: at about $1,600 for the heavy-duty unit, the Airblade is about four times as expensive as its most credible rival, the more conventional-looking, American-built Excel Xlerator. As the watchdog website reports, though, an Airblade costs about $90 less a year to operate than a conventional dryer, and some $1,400 less than paper towels.

Canadian businesses have noticed. Converts include Costco, the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, Ont., and the Edmonton airport. Not to mention my local mall. When I dropped in on the operations manager there, a young, savvy guy named Jeff Tsuji, he spoke about the Airblade with the kind of matter-of-fact acceptance only the young can bring to discussions about new technology. “Besides this mall, I’ve worked in four high-rise buildings that also switched to the Airblade. The one downside is the tendency of water to pool in the bottom of the machine, because that’s the direction of the forced air; you have to be alert to that. Otherwise, it’s fuel-efficient, and it completely replaces paper towels, which cost a fortune. And it works. I mean, think of that: a hand-dryer that works.”

This is precisely what I’m thinking when I email Sir James himself, which feels like interviewing a rock star. I’ve read his autobiography, Against the Odds, and I know he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I’m not sure about appliance groupies. I describe my first fateful meeting with the Airblade, and ask him how he came to invent it.

“Most good inventions are born from frustrations,” he answers, “and we have clearly shared the same one. Traditional hand-dryers are unhygienic, energy-hungry, expensive to run and lazy. Some take as long as 44 seconds to dry hands. Before you know it, you’ve given up and wiped your hands on your trousers.”

Yes! The drying-your-hands-on-your-trousers syndrome! Is there another product on the market today that he thinks rivals the Airblade in design?

“The Rotring drafting pencil,” comes the response. “It’s elegantly designed, and feels great in your hand. It’s my favourite gadget. Also the Moulton bike, created by an English designer, Alex Moulton, which has small, strong wheels and high-pressure tires, so you go fast with less effort.”

Was he a “eureka” inventor? Did the Airblade come to him in a flash of insight? “Those ‘a-ha’ inventive moments are few and far between,” he answers, “and they’re followed by years of R & D to make them work. I’m sure the first prototype of the Polaroid camera didn’t work perfectly. The path to discovery is full of mistakes and false leads. You can’t do things if you’re afraid of making mistakes.”

He said as much in a video to mark the opening of the engineering lab at Vancouver’s Science World. “My advice to Canadian children is to not be afraid of failure. Failure is most interesting. You learn from failure. You don’t learn from success. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Experiment. Try something that you can’t possibly believe will work.” Canada, he observed, has always had a strong tradition of engineering research and development, citing the “trans-Canada railway” and “the invention of insulin.” Something like that would be wonderful, of course, but for the time being, a Canadian equivalent of the Airblade would be good enough for me.

My hands were dry.

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