It took 5,127 prototypes, building and testing, four years of focused toiling and a daunting legal battle to finally claim his invention, an invention that is cleaning the world’s homes for the last 40 years.
This is the story of James Dyson, the inventor of cyclonic vacuum (and many more).
Dyson’s story demonstrates the importance of failures in the invention process, emphasising his mantra of “I now know how to make it better”. It is a journey with ups and downs, successes and failures, battles won and lost.
Dyson and his five decades of engineering pursuits is an antithesis to the myth of inventions happening as a stroke of genius or a flash of brilliance, and instead depicts a marathon run with learning at each step.
The memoir is divided into three parts, chronicling various aspects of Dyson's life and career.
The first part, "The Early Years," explores Dyson's upbringing in England and his education at art school and engineering college. Dyson shares his deep fascination with design and recounts his initial attempts at creating unconventional products, such as the "Sea Truck" while emphasizing the invaluable role played by his mentor, Jeremy Fry.
Dyson writes — “Jeremy Fry taught me, without saying a word, that each day is a form of education.” On sales he writes — “Jeremy Fry taught me not to try to pressure people into buying but to ask them lots of questions about what they did, how they worked, and what they might expect of a new product.”
Fry’s impression had such an impression that Dyson mentions — “I still find myself putting into practice at Dyson some of the same things Jeremy said and did when I worked for him half a century ago.”
Describing Jeremy's management style he writes: “As an instinctive inventor and engineer, Jeremy was always looking for a better way of doing things. He talked face-to-face with the employees about new ideas. He never sent memos. Where there were opportunities, he didn’t see problems. He was a natural teacher. When I told him I don’t know how to weld, he lit up a gas-welding nozzle and taught me the rudiments in little more than ten minutes. Being quick-minded, he expected the same of those he employed.”
Another quality that Dyson imbibes in his life from Jeremy is described as:
“Jeremy was always happier making things in the machine shop than he was sitting around a boardroom table or mingling with the high society. He was interested in young people or anyone enthusiastic who wanted to learn. He loathed arrogance and experts, by which he meant those who want you to believe that they know everything about a subject when the inventive mind knows instinctively that there are always further questions to be asked and new discoveries to be made.”
The second part of the book delves into Dyson's hardships in the section titled "The Struggle". Here, he details his arduous journey of experimentation to develop a revolutionary vacuum cleaner.
Dyson candidly describes the financial struggles and industry challenges he faced as a newcomer in the market. He provides a comprehensive explanation of the first principles involved in vacuum cleaner design and discusses the numerous obstacles encountered on the path to success.
For instance, when a Japanese magazine criticised all vacuum cleaners for leaving a fine film of dust on floors, Dyson personally investigated the issue, leading to the development of a patented manufacturing technique that incorporated carbon-fiber bristles inspired by vinyl records.
The book also sheds light on Dyson's unwavering commitment to continuous improvement, dedicated focus on engineering research and development, and the integration of cross-domain technologies within his ventures, offering valuable insights for aspiring engineers.
In the final part of the book, “The Future,” Dyson describes his vision for innovation and technology.
Dyson's writing about the ongoing efforts to institutionalise product design and development is a must read for anyone (especially Indians) who contemplates on the role of technology in society and the need for innovation to address societal challenges and contribution of young engineers.
The question of how to nurture future engineers and Dyson’s experiments in this regard are quite an inspiration.
“Learning by doing, learning by trial and error, learning by failing, these are all effective forms of education. My view is that the education of budding and future engineers in all fields, starting at school is essential as the pace of change and competition intensifies. We miss a huge opportunity by not reaching young people for whom academia is of no real interest if purely cerebral and not applied. Children love making things and yet, all too often this innate curiosity and experimentation expressed through our hands is stamped out by educational systems that see no virtue in such natural creativity…. Because of this attitude, design and technology are not adequately covered in school curriculum."
Dyson's writing style exudes honesty, passion, and an unwavering dedication to design and technology. The memoir offers readers a captivating glimpse into the life and work of an innovative thinker, deviating from conventional biographies that focus solely on accomplishments.
Dyson's candidness in sharing his failures and struggles alongside his successes adds an authentic touch that resonates with readers inclined toward entrepreneurial pursuits.
Lastly, Dyson emphasises the crucial role of education and mentorship during his formative years, underscoring their significance in nurturing talent. His unwavering commitment to fostering the next generation of creative thinkers, backed by substantial financial and emotional investments is worth emulation.
For engineers aspiring entrepreneurship, it is crucial to understand that the journey is rarely a smooth highway to cruise on; rather, it is an arduous hike.
In his book, James Dyson — Invention: A Life, Dyson provides a high-resolution topographical map that reveals the peaks and valleys one may encounter along the way. It serves as a blazing trail, showcasing how Dyson, a pioneer, navigated those challenging paths.
The Indian society, which produces a significant number of engineers, yearns for inspirations like Dyson, originating from within our own society. It is essential to document these experiences, not as folklore portraying flashes of brilliance and invincibility, but as pragmatic journeys filled with valuable lessons derived from failures at every step.
What Indian society truly needs is a recognition of "Problem Solvers" who toil without settling for mediocrity, we have to bring them to the forefront for us to progress as a society. Unfortunately, we still settle for a society heavily skewed embracing the "middlemen" (who vie for influence and hog the limelight) as an embodiment of success.
“Invention: A Life” is a captivating memoir that delves into the life and work of James Dyson. Whether you are an engineer, entrepreneur, designer, or simply someone intrigued by the creative process of problem-solving, this book is definitely worth reading.
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