On the Hot Seat

James Dyson  Vacuum inventor   Boston Sunday Globe 06/12/05

James, Dyson, the British inventor of his eponymous vacuum, recently visited Providence to accept the 2005 Success by Design Excellence Award from the Rhode Island School of Design. Dyson parlayed his passion for "a better mousetrap" into a company that says it has become a market leader in Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, and in a little more than two years has garnered more than 20 percent of the US vacuum segment. Dressed in this signature T-shirt and jeans, Dyson spoke with Globe correspondent John P. Mellow Jr.

Q. The eternal question facing vacuum-cleaner buyers everywhere is, should I buy an upright or a canister? Which do you think is better?

A. It used to be in the genes. If your mother had an upright vacuum cleaner, you ended up with an upright vacuum cleaner, and if she had a canister, youíd end up buying a canister. Nowadays, there really is no difference. Itís what you like as a user. Do you like pulling something or do you like pushing something?

Q. Your latest product is a Dyson that travels on a big ball instead of wheels. Where did the idea for that vacuum come from?

A. We always noticed how un-maneuverable upright vacuum cleaners are. Our competitors use four wheels. It makes you do a lot of "sawing" to clean the carpet. With the ball, I can twist my wrist and go anywhere. Itís the same kind of freedom you have with a mouse on a computer.

Q. Mike Rutter, a former vice president at Hoover, once said publicly that he regretted his company didnít buy your technology when you offered it to them so they could have kept if off the market. Were you outraged by that comment?

A. It outraged me, but it does happen. What I found more revealing about that was that they werenít interested in developing new technology for their customers. I found that much more shocking.

Q. Youíre an ingenious inventor and a wonderful designer. You could have applied those talents to anything, but you chose vacuum cleaners. Why?

A. I quite like choosing unattractive things. Cars are glamorous and computers are glamorous, but it was the vacuum cleaner that annoyed me more than anything. That disgusting bag that clogs immediately when you start to use it. Itís just deeply unattractive, and you donít want to use it.

Q. How much of a risk was it making a Dyson vacuum cleaner with a clear dirt catcher?

A. Every manufacturer, every retailer we went to, said you will never sell a vacuum cleaner where you can see the dirt. Nobody wants to see the dirt. Itís disgusting. We got quite unnerved just before the launch and we did some market research. And the market research said that nobody wants to see the dirt. But we decided to ignore it because we liked seeing the dirt.

Thatís the trouble with market research. It canít transcend the normal, whatís expected. The exciting breakthroughs very rarely happen because they donít get past market research.

Q. What companies do you feel do a good job of marrying engineering with design?

A. What Iím interested in is developing technology to get better performance. To be honest, there arenít that many examples of that going on.

Q. An inventor in Spain recently introduced a washing machine that uses fingerprint scanning to prevent the same person from using the machine twice in a row. The idea is that mom shouldnít be burdened with doing all the laundry. Do you have any plans that will encourage a more equal distribution of vacuuming chores?

A. We donít need to. They already share our Dyson vacuums.

We know that if a couple buys one of our Dyson vacuums where the husband didnít do the vacuum cleaning before, heís 45 percent more likely to do the vacuuming after buying one.

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