Vacuum maker's rivals eat his dust

By not losing suction, innovative RootCyclone gobbles up half the British market

September 01, 2002|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. When prying a den's sofa free from the wall behind, this grim summation of the human experience is fully understood. Here lies family history in all its multi-layered ignominy: kitty hair, petrified human skin cells, a less than sweet-smelling gym sock, and the still vibrant constellation of Froot Loops that little Andy spilled there last April.

To err is human; to vacuum, divine. And soon enough, when the Dyson DC07 RootCyclone vacuum cleaner is launched in the United States, the job will be a whole lot holier. Already sold in 24 countries around the world, it is the best-selling brand in Western Europe, and has captured nearly half the floor care market in the United Kingdom, home of the RootCyclone's inventor, James Dyson.

Dyson was in New York recently to publicize what's being hyped as "the first vacuum cleaner that doesn't lose suction." While doing so, he also explained with winning humility how it was that the responsibility of inventing the RootCyclone was bestowed upon him.

"Let's face it," he said. "Vacuum cleaners are a major household appliance, but they are also pretty nasty, unloved things. I mean, consider the obvious affection that goes into the creation of skis, or surfboards -- that's because their designers are usually sports enthusiasts themselves.

"They are designing something that is going to enhance their life. You don't see that sort of love expressed in the creation of a vacuum cleaner."

If Dyson and his RootCyclone have not had a love affair exactly, it has nonetheless been a committed, long-term relationship. It began back in 1978, in Bath, England, where Dyson was living with his wife, Deirdre, and his children, Emily, Jacob and a newborn, Sam. One day, he was helping his wife with some household chores. Dyson was already a well-respected industrial engineer whose award-winning Ballbar-row -- instead of a wheel, it has a ball that keeps it from sinking into soft ground -- and Sea Truck, a pontoon for aquatic transport, were best sellers. Yet, as he pushed the vacuum cleaner about, he found himself becoming increasingly frustrated.

"We had the most powerful machine, millions of amps, yet it wasn't picking up even after I put in a new bag," Dyson said. Suddenly, he was mentally transported back to vacuuming the stairs of his childhood home in Norfolk, England. "There I was, hoisting about an ancient monstrosity, the cloth bag at its rear was foul-smelling, and it made a terrible whine."

Then, as now, the machine wasn't sucking.

"As a child, I was powerless to complain," he continued, "but as an adult I was better equipped to focus my anger."

And how, precisely, did he do this? "I took the machine to bits," he said, with a wide smile.

By his own admission, Dyson is a bit of a mad scientist. Refreshingly, however, he does not have a plastic-sheathed wad of pencils crammed in his shirt pocket or a calculator grafted to his belt. Neither does his hair stick out straight from his temples like steel wool. Instead, at age 55, he is tall, athletically trim, has bright blue eyes and a handsomely snaggle-toothed grin. He appears to be an art historian or a professor of classics -- both of which, in fact, he studied at London's Royal College of Art before turning his attention to invention.

Once he'd pulled the faulty vacuum cleaner apart, he quickly discovered the problem. Dust had clogged the bag's interior membrane, thus blocking airflow. In order to have truly successful suction, he hypothesized that the bag had to go. This realization, combined with a recollection of turbines set atop saw mills and concrete factories (which filtered dust from the air), led Dyson to conclude a similar cyclone technology could be utilized on domestic dirt.

In other words, by spinning an air stream, dust and debris could be subjected to centrifugal force and sucked free from floors and carpets.

Because such airflow would be unobstructed by a bag's porousness (or lack thereof), nothing could clog, so suction would remain constant and ever ready to do battle with the daily grime.

"The average household produces up to three bathtubs full of dust every year," Dyson claims. His next allegation is more shocking still: a major component of all this dust is, ahem, insect feces.

He built the first prototype for the cyclone out of cardboard and tape. After firing it up, Dyson quickly realized he was on to something. Elated, he proposed to his partners at the Ballbarrow company that his cyclone-powered vacuum cleaner was the company's next big thing.

To his considerable surprise, all of them (including his brother-in-law) dismissed the idea. In an ensuing disagreement, Dyson found himself kicked out of the company he'd founded.

Undeterred, he borrowed money from the bank, set up shop in the garage behind his house, and began experimenting on different versions of his cyclone. "I would make one or two a day, and then test them. I thought it would take about a year."

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