Some household names, such as Hoover, became so synonymous with their products as to create new verbs. For decades such brands held sway over the world of household appliances – until a certain inventor from England turned it upside down with out-of-the-box thinking that has spurned a whole new range of pioneering products.

Today we know Dyson, both the brand and the man behind it, as being synonymous with innovation and the rejuvenation of the household appliance industry, but the road to success was not an easy one. Like most people with a vision beyond that of those around them, James Dyson encountered a lot of obstacles along the way but ultimately had the drive to see his project through, and in the process took appliance engineering into a new era – that of the 21st century.

It all started when a young engineer from Cromer in Norfolk entered the world of industrial design with a uniquely keen eye for detail and an inquisitive nature. He had helped to design the Sea Truck, a fast landing craft, while still at the Royal College of Art in London, an experience that sparked his natural gift for inventing improved versions of the products that surround us in our everyday lives. Highly conceptual in his thinking, James Dyson has always stood out for his ability to find logical solutions to practical problems, or indeed making better versions of products that others thought to be quite satisfactory as they were.

In other words, he looked beyond the accepted truths to see if there wasn’t a way to make life easier, more convenient and more efficient. The first independently invented gadget this inquisitive way of thinking produced was the ballbarrow, a surprisingly simple but also surprisingly efficient variation of the age-old wheelbarrow. It was conceived of by Dyson when he was still in his twenties, and began production in 1974. And yes, it is an improved version of something most of us could not see improved, yet the ballbarrow is more agile, more stable when carrying heavy loads and on rough surfaces or soft, soggy soil, as well as being gentler on grass lawns because of its better weight distribution.

The product, which went on to win the Building Design Innovation Award in 1977, would be the first of many new inventions and innovations from the pen of James Dyson, while the practical applications of the humble ball in industrial design would continue to be a feature in his work. More large-scaled items would follow, but it was with the humble vacuum cleaner – known to some as a ‘Hoover’ – that Dyson would rewrite appliance history and lay the foundations for one of the most innovative engineering brands in the world today.

From Concept to Pioneering Firm

Many good ideas emerge out of personal experience, or more likely, personal frustration, and it was no different when James Dyson was exasperated by the poor performance of a vacuum cleaner he had bought. It was forever becoming clogged and losing suction power, as well as being somewhat clumsy when handled by anyone with less than ideal dexterity. So, in keeping with his profession and personality, Dyson opened the patient up, studied it, identified the problem and set about trying to create a solution for it.

The breakthrough solution came from thinking outside the box and finding it in an altogether unrelated field. In a fruitful cross-fertilisation between different engineering fields, Dyson applied the giant cyclone systems that by creating a centrifugal vortex are used to clarify liquids and gasses by separating out impurities. Such systems were used on a large scale by sawmills, but when building his own scaled down model, he began to wonder if this centrifugal vortex process could also be applied on a smaller scale to vacuum cleaners, and in the process provide powerful suction to extract dust without the accompanying clogging up of the bags.

From Inventor to CEO

Tests at home proved successful, and so Dyson’s foray into vacuum cleaner technology was born. Yet the majority partners in his firm believed if it was so easy to improve upon such products, then the large manufacturers would have done so long ago. James Dyson held onto his idea and was pushed out of the company but managed to find an investor to build the first prototypes. The initial idea was to sell the licence to said large manufacturers, but as the sale of vacuum cleaner bags was so lucrative they weren’t interested. So Dyson went it alone and launched the Kleeneze Rotork Cyclon in 1983.

Expensive and ahead of its time, it at first remained a niche novelty product of which just 500 were sold in the first year, but Dyson clung on to the idea and the technology concept behind it, and gradually expanded the market for the product from its British base to also include other parts of Europe, North America and Japan. By 1991 he was ready to launch Dyson Appliances Ltd. and produce the first dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner bearing the Dyson brand name, the DA001. By 1993 he had left third party production and set up his own factory in Chippenham, Wiltshire.

Not listening to marketers and accountants, he followed the path of engineering and pure product design, and was proven right when the DC01 became the top-selling vacuum cleaner in the UK in 2001. The Dyson name was now firmly established, and more importantly, not as just another appliance manufacturer but as a company associated with ground-breaking, innovative new engineering concepts that produced superior, stylish modern products. The public took to Dyson’s devices in ever wider sections of the world, inspired by its range of innovative vacuum cleaners – which now also featured effective ball-roller design – as well as by a growing number of even more innovative products such as the bladeless fan, the Airblade hand drier and the Dyson Hot, a warm air fan heater also without fast-opinning blades or visible heating elements.

Stepping into the Future

More than most international brands, Dyson appears to be striding into the future with bold new innovations, and as it is widening its product range and technological focus, has announced plans to relocate the company headquarters from Malmesbury to Singapore. The original decision to keep production in the UK had been widely heralded by the public, but now new realities – and in particular, opportunities – are pushing the company into the Far East, away from the more restrictive legislation and business climate of the UK and the EU. Indeed, the whole Brexit affair has done businesses such as Dyson no favours, and while it will of course retain operations in the UK and Europe, the HQ shift can be said to be one of a growing number of casualties caused by Brexit.

That said, the core of the issue is the investment support and market potential offered in a place like Singapore, which will help Dyson to further explore expansion into the electric car and battery markets, still partly driven by the Dyson Institute of Technology at Hullavington near Malmesbury. The latter, together with scientific research agreements with top universities across the UK and beyond, remains at the heart of a company directly inspired by technology, design and the creation of elegantly styled, practical solutions. In short, a world populated by innovate new technological applications.