How to make Britain’s future

PEOPLE should stop trying to make money out of money and make money out of inventing things,” James Dyson tells me, “it’s the best way to revive our economy.”

Clearly a man of his word, he had literally just placed the last ceremonial brick on his latest philanthropic venture: the Royal College of Art’s (RCA) new building. “I’m very excited about the people and ideas that are going to come out of this building,” he says.

The building itself is pretty special too. It has been designed to provide 40 incubator units for Design London students to house their designs while they work on commercialising them. The programme, Dyson proudly explains, is a partnership between the Royal College of Art and Imperial College’s engineering faculty and business school, where a whopping 80 per cent of student projects secure further funding or become businesses in their own right.

Dyson is understandably enthusiastic about the college. He went there himself, initially studying furniture design before making the leap into industrial projects. After graduation he worked for a few engineering companies, designing Edison-style: observing the world around him and making prototype after prototype of his ideas.

He discovered his most famous invention after a chance visit to a sawmill. He noticed how the saw dust was removed from the air by large industrial cyclones. He wondered whether that principle could work on a smaller scale within a vacuum cleaner. When he got home he took apart his vacuum cleaner and rigged it up with a cardboard cyclone and cleaned his room with it. He was impressed that it picked up more dust than his old bag machine. This begun a long battle for funding and licensing the design. Dyson was supported by his wife’s salary as an art teacher until he secured a funder.

Dyson hopes to use the work of his foundation to get young people to follow in his footsteps. He says: “As a nation we’ve become too scared to take risks, but it’s through experimentation and failure that new ideas are born. Britain needs this now more than ever before. Over the last fifty years we’ve forgotten how good we are at making and developing technology to sell to the world.”


Born: Norfolk, England

Lives: Wiltshire

Age: 63

Family: Married with three children

Studied: Royal College of Art

It took 15 years and over 5,000 prototypes to launch the first Dyson DCO1 vacuum cleaner.

Dyson vacuums are sold in over 50 countries

One in every three households now owns a Dyson vacuum cleaner