September 23, 2011 9:58 pm

The Inventory: James Dyson

‘At school the only subjects I cared about were art and woodwork – domain of the dunce’

James Dyson, 64, is best known for his invention of the bagless vacuum cleaner, launched in 1993. He was knighted in 2006.

What was your earliest ambition?

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A childhood spent poring over the Eagle centrespreads of locomotives or jet engines fuelled a desire to make things.

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

Gresham’s school in Norfolk. The only subjects I cared about were art and woodwork – deemed the domain of the dunce. After school, I followed the smell of oil paint and turps to London’s Byam Shaw School of Art and then the Royal College of Art.

Who was or still is your mentor?

Anthony Hunt, a lecturer in structural engineering at the RCA, inspired me to put my paint brushes to one side. He talked with equal enthusiasm about how structures worked and about their aesthetics. On leaving the RCA, I built boats with Jeremy Fry. He soon had me designing and selling high-speed landing craft to the Egyptian army.

How physically fit are you?

I grew up running miles of the Norfolk coastline. I’d think nothing of a six-mile run before breakfast. I still run, though not as far and not before muesli.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

In my case it was stubbornness. It has to be when you’ve spent years building one failed prototype after another.

Have you ever taken an IQ test?

No.

How politically committed are you?

I’m not into politics but I am committed to a cause: ensuring design technology and engineering stays on the UK curriculum, alongside science and maths – grounding abstract theory, merging the practical with the academic.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

With six million Dyson machines created every year, carbon neutrality is a way off. But lean engineering, as opposed to over engineering, has always been good engineering. And it’s better for the environment.

Do you have more than one home?

I live in Gloucestershire but I spend summers in Provence with family.

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

A working turbine engine, with stink and noise, though the carbon footprint would go up a few sizes.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

My grandchildren.

In what place are you happiest?

Other than with my grandchildren, working alongside my engineering team. I have to be dragged away.

If you had a coat of arms, what would be on it?

James Dyson seal

An engineering clamp for me and my son Jacob, an industrial designer; a painter’s palette for my wife, Deirdre; a guitar for my musician son Sam; clothing designed by my daughter, Emily.

What ambitions do you still have?

Plenty. As an engineer I’m constantly spotting problems and plotting how to solve them.

What drives you on?

Frustration. A pig-headed belief in my ideas. Knowing there simply must be a better way.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

Having someone recommend a Dyson vacuum cleaner to me.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

I was more irked than disappointed when plans for an engineering school I had backed were thwarted. But I’ve not given up. The James Dyson Foundation runs engineering education programmes across the UK and overseas.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?

That experts are not worth listening to. That a career in engineering is life-changing. That there’s a limited time in life for flared trousers.

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

Find another problem to solve.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

I’m enjoying this one too much to consider the next.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

7.5. I’m a perfectionist.

The Dyson Hot fan heater is now available at www.dyson.co.uk

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