WIRED UK profiles inventor James Dyson

Michael Giberson

Inventor James Dyson is a fan of Thomas Edison and making lots of mistakes. From the November 2011 WIRED UK:

Thomas Edison, the American inventor, is synonymous with trial-and-error innovating. He would build a prototype, test it, watch it go wrong, tweak the design and build another. Over and over again. … Dyson has volumes about Edison on his bookshelves at Dodington Park, his country house in Gloucestershire, and, over a century later, swears by his approach. (In the 1980s, Dyson’s Ahab-like quest to find out how to make a bagless vacuum cleaner involved 5,126 failures.) “At school, you’re not allowed to fail; the wrong answer is a bad thing,” Dyson says. “But all failures are valuable because they all teach you something. I have lots of them every day.” His company would later use this monomaniacal process to give heater manufacturing a shot in the arm.

One way Dyson tries to promote innovation is to avoid the well-educated industrial designer. As Dyson put it, “A non-hardened engineer is probably more likely to do ridiculous experiments,” and sometimes that is a very useful thing. More:

To calibrate the business to tackle design problems, Dyson has imposed a clearly defined corporate philosophy. Its core function is to encourage “outrageous suggestions”. Take recruiting. “I like naïvety,” he says. “We try to choose people without experience. And we don’t employ any [pure] industrial designers at all.” It means that his staff aren’t polluted by received wisdom, he says, helping them to think afresh. There are also a few artists, even furniture designers — people with no formal engineering training at all. Like Dyson himself.

“If you don’t understand why the sums don’t add up, and you make a suggestion, most of the time you’ll be wrong,” he says. “But just occasionally you’ll be suggesting something quite unusual. And a non-hardened engineer is probably more likely to do ridiculous experiments.”

Ridiculous can prove lucrative. In 2004 Dyson was working on a product that never saw the light of day. He won’t say exactly what it was, in case his company develops it in the future, but it involved water and powerful slivers of air. One day an engineer attempted to dry his wet hands with the airflow. “We all noticed, and suddenly said together, ‘Hand drier’.” In 2006 the company launched it as the Airblade, which uses cold air and dries hands in ten seconds, consuming, Dyson claims, 80 per cent less energy than a warm-air equivalent.

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