TODAY, billionaire vacuum cleaner king Sir James Dyson owns a stately home, a 300ft yacht and 36,000 acres of rolling British countryside.
Yet as a struggling inventor trying — and failing over 5,000 times — to make a marketable bagless vacuum, he lived a frugal existence similar to ’70s sitcom The Good Life.
The 74-year-old owned one pair of shoes and two shirts. He and wife Deirdre grew their own veg and James made their furniture.
James — named Britain’s richest man last year — revealed: “Deirdre made our clothes.
“In those days, you didn’t have as many clothes. We only had one pair of shoes, a couple of shirts. I think I had a suit at some point.
“Clothes weren’t as cheap as they are now. So you just made do with less, and you didn’t wash them every day. It sounds a bit disgusting, but a shirt lasted three days, not one day as we do now, chucking it in the washing machine.
“When I was at school, we had two shirts a week, so each shirt had to last three or four days. I don’t think we smelt any more.”
The dad-of-three was speaking to The Sun as his autobiography Invention: A Life is published today. It charts an extraordinary life of a man who became Britain’s wealthiest inventor yet who didn’t even study engineering or science.
His school careers officer suggested he should become an estate agent.
In the book James puts his astonishing success down to “endurance” despite failure and “bloody-mindedness not to follow convention”.
The ardent brexiteer said: “I didn’t have any money, I didn’t inherit anything. I’ve had to borrow prodigiously in order to do what I’ve done.” His business is now estimated to be worth £16.3BILLION and the family rank fourth in the Sunday Times’ UK Rich List after reaching the top spot last year.
James owns more land than the Queen. His portfolio includes the Grade One-listed Dodington Park stately home in Gloucestershire, vineyards in the south of France and a 300ft steam yacht called the Nahlin.
In his book, James — the youngest of three children — ponders whether losing his father at a young age spurred his later success. Second World War veteran Alec Dyson, who fought in Burma, died from throat and lung cancer in 1956 when James was nine.
Major Dyson — twice mentioned in dispatches — had been Head of Classics at public school Gresham’s in Holt, Norfolk. The school allowed James to stay on as a boarder free of charge following his “devastating loss”. He recently repaid the act of kindness with a £19million donation to open a new science building.
His mum — vicar’s daughter Mary, who became a grammar school teacher after her husband’s death — brought up the children alone. The family grew their own vegetables and kept chickens. They didn’t have a fridge until James was 12.
James said of Mary: “She was a great single parent. Determined, not too strict. It was a very unmaterialistic age after the war. I didn’t feel I missed money at all.” He became a schoolboy long distance runner which he credits with teaching him “determination”.
James studied at London’s Byam Shaw School of Art where he fell in love with his future wife, the “naturally beautiful” Deirdre Hindmarsh. Although both were living on student grants, they married in 1967. They had three children, Emily, Jake and Sam.
His business is now estimated to be worth £16.3BILLION and the family rank fourth in the Sunday Times’ UK Rich List after reaching the top spot last year.
Then, while studying at the Royal College of Art, James helped engineer and sell the Sea Truck — a craft that could land without needing a jetty or harbour — after meeting inventor Jeremy Fry.
In 1974 James invented the Ballbarrow — a wheelbarrow with a ball instead of a wheel. It would capture more than half the UK garden wheelbarrow market but James had assigned the Ballbarrow’s patent to the company that made.
Following disagreements, his fellow shareholders booted him out in 1979 — and James lost control of his Ballbarrow creation. He admits it was a “very low moment” that left him “penniless” with a large mortgage.
His confidence knocked, he was, however, already working up an idea for a revolutionary vacuum cleaner. As Deirdre worked as an art teacher and sold her paintings, James ran up an overdraft as he worked to perfect his invention, revealing he had no income for five years.
The family grew their own vegetables and made their own clothes and furniture. The entrepreneur said: “There was no Ikea then, so we just didn’t have furniture. We didn’t have cupboards. We didn’t have many chairs. You don’t really need all these things.”
Amusingly, Deirdre, who became bespoke rug designer, says of the inventor: “I don’t remember him doing much vacuuming.” When I tell him his family’s earlier years sound similar to classic sitcom The Good Life starring Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal, he admitted: “Well, they were! And we enjoyed them. We were all very happy. We scraped together enough money and borrowed money, increasing amounts.”
In 1983, after four years and 5,126 failed attempts at building a bagless vacuum cleaner, James “cracked it”.
Yet his invention, which would become the best-selling DC01, was rejected by the major manufacturers because the market in disposable vacuum cleaner bags was worth over £360million.
‘Lords? I don’t have time’
So he decided to make the vacuums himself. Within 18 months, it became Britain’s best-selling carpet cleaner.
James says: “Understanding why things go wrong and how they can be avoided is what’s so fascinating about engineering. It’s not the bridge staying up that’s interesting, it’s the one that falls down.”
James only paid off the overdraft aged 48 in 1995 — when it had reached £650,000. He credits Deirdre with not letting the billions go to his head.
“She has kept me grounded,” he revealed. “The amount of money we have is sort of on paper. It’s the value of the business. But making money allows us, as a company that is developing new technology, to fund these big ventures.”
He cites Dyson’s efforts to market an electric car which was canned without going into production because it wasn’t “commercially viable”. The Brexit supporter was criticised in 2002 for moving his factories to low-cost Malaysia after problems gaining planning permission at his Wiltshire site.
He also wanted to be close to Far East suppliers of components for his products. Later Dyson HQ was moved to Singapore. James points out he employs 4,000 people in the UK which is “far more than before the move”.
For a long time, there’s been a disdain of people who make things, people who sell things, even people who make money by making things.
He says of Singapore: “You don’t get that same supportive environment for manufacturing in Britain.
“The problem lies in education and attitudes of politicians who really have no interest in manufacturing. For a long time, there’s been a disdain of people who make things, people who sell things, even people who make money by making things.”
He points out in Singapore, 40 per cent of graduates are engineers while in Britain the figure is four per cent. In 2017 he opened the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology in Wiltshire to help train the next generation of engineers.
This year he received an apology from the BBC after it published leaked text messages in which Boris Johnson promised James he would “fix” a tax issue for Dyson staff working to develop Covid ventilators.
The BBC apologised for labelling the entrepreneur a “prominent Conservative supporter”. The businessman admits he was “astonished” and “stung” by the BBC’s story after he was called in by the PM to design the ventilators. He says he lost £20million on the project.
Asked if he would accept a peerage, he said: “I haven’t really got time to sit in the Lords.” Britain’s great entrepreneur would rather be tinkering with his latest invention instead.
A HISTORY OF SMART IDEAS
1970 – The Rotork Sea Truck
James managed the project while studying at the Royal College of Art.
Dyson was 23 when he helped designed the boat, which carried a three-ton load at 50mph. It was used in the oil and construction industries, as well as for military use.
1974 – The Ballbarrow
James invented this more manoeuvrable wheelbarrow with a ball instead of a wheel. It featured on the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World.
1983 – DC01
Frustrated with his own vacuum cleaner’s lacklustre suction, James took it apart and found the bag was clogged with dust.
After 5,126 failed prototypes, he came up with the world’s first bagless vacuum. It would become the UK’s best seller.
2006 – Airblade hand dryer
Air from the dryer moves at 430mph – the same speed as a late-model Spitfire – to dry your hands quickly.
It has a carbon footprint six times smaller than that of paper towels and is now a fixture at many restaurants and bars.
2016 – Supersonic hair dryer
The motor sits in the handle of for better balance and less noise. A high-pressure jet of air dries hair quicker. It took four years and £50million to develop.
2019 – Dyson EV
The all-electric seven-seat luxury car – touted as a potential rival to Tesla – was supposed to be on the road this year. But it was scrapped in 2020 for not being commercially viable after James poured £500million of his own cash into the project.