One Persistent Sucker
At this point, some folks would have sought a good shrink. But Dyson—who had previously reinvented the wheel (barrow) and come up with flotation devices dubbed "Jesus floats" (because they allowed the wearer to walk on water)—headed instead to his workshop. There, the father of three began an odyssey that would last 15 years. "What attracted me to the vacuum cleaner is that everybody hated it," Dyson says with a smile. "It was an opportunity to do something quite difficult."
And ultimately—after 5,126 discarded prototypes—exceedingly profitable. Within two years of its 1993 debut, his futuristic-looking, bagless DCO1 became Britain's top-selling vacuum cleaner, eventually sucking up half the market and earning Dyson Appliances $350 million in annual sales. (His personal fortune, once next to nothing, is now estimated at up to $1 billion.) It's a success Dyson hopes to duplicate in the United States, where his brainchild recently went on sale. Though a Hoover rep notes that U.S. consumer tastes vary widely from those in Europe, London product-design expert Simon Bolton predicts a hit. Dyson, he says, "has made all the other companies look at their technologies. He's given them a wake-up call."
Dyson's innovative thinking didn't emerge from a vacuum. As a child in Norfolk, England, he watched his father, Alec, a high school classics teacher, work wonders tinkering with ordinary household materials. "He was always making things—wooden puppets, a doll's house," says Dyson. "He painted, he acted, he drew." But after his father succumbed to throat cancer when Dyson was 9, his home-maker mother, Mary (who died in 1978), sent him to a nearby boarding school. Assigned to create the programs for a school production of an 18th-century play, he opted for scrolls instead of booklets—and drew the headmaster's wrath. "I learned that to change things and be an inventor," he says, "you are going to come up against trouble all the time."
But when Dyson got to the Byam Shaw School of Art in London, that freewheeling attitude won him an admirer: fellow student Deirdre Hindmarsh. "I liked him because he didn't care what other people thought," says Deirdre, now 59, an artist and rug designer. "He had extraordinary confidence."
They married in 1969, and Dyson went to work for a manufacturing firm. The couple moved into a 17th-century farmhouse, eventually becoming the parents of Emily, now 31 and a fashion designer; Jake, 30, a product designer and inventor; and Sam, 24, a rock musician. One day in 1971 Dyson, frustrated by his wheelbarrow's propensity for getting stuck in the mud, had the brainstorm that led to the Ballbarrow, in which a sphere replaces the wheel for greater maneuverability.
Though the product was a success, Dyson had a hard time winning over his colleagues when he turned to vacuum cleaners. "James," he remembers one telling him, "if there were a better kind of vacuum, Hoover or Electrolux would have invented it." Plagued by financial and legal woes, Dyson struck out on his own in 1979. To stay afloat, he mortgaged the farmhouse. "It was hell, really," says Deirdre, who began raising vegetables and sewing the family's clothes. "There was the terrible risk that if we didn't start making money, we would lose our home."
It didn't take Dyson long to zero in on the problem with traditional vacuum cleaners: Even a fine layer of dust can clog the bag's pores, blocking airflow. But it would require more than a decade of tinkering with blueprints and plastic molds before he emerged with what he is certain is a better dust trap. "I remember all this crashing and banging and swearing," says Deirdre. "All the family just kept away." And even when he had a successful prototype of his Dyson Dual Cyclone—whose cone-shaped canisters use centrifugal force to trap dirt and expel air—a series of legal snarls over patent issues and manufacturing problems made it so difficult to bring his idea to market that he was forced to open his own factory.
While the resulting windfall has certainly changed Dyson's life—he and his wife now leave the vacuuming to hired help and split their time between two homes in England and a third in France—he is hardly one to sit back and enjoy domestic bliss. "Almost everything in the house bothers me," says Dyson, who has already developed an innovative washing machine (two drums rotate in opposite directions). Nor is he finished with the vacuum. "Ideally it should weigh nothing, make no noise and require no effort," he says. "There's a long way to go before it's perfect."
Eileen Finan in Wiltshire, England