December 1, 2009
The Oh! Factor
How James Dyson transforms everyday objects–the vacuum cleaner, the hand dryer, and now the desk fan–into objects of wonder.
It’s a blowy autumn morning in Manhattan, and James Dyson, the 62-year-old British entrepreneur, is in town to sell the world something it never knew it needed. Dyson, you’ll recall, is the man who reinvented the vacuum cleaner, the hand dryer, and, by all accounts, the art of reinventing quotidian products itself. He is both an engineering wonk and a brilliant marketer in an age that has elevated conspicuous consumption from pastime to profession. His personal fortune is worth an estimated $1 billion. He is the Tory Party’s freshly minted technology czar. When he travels, it is in a halo of his own improbable celebrity, the aura of a man who has tapped into some basic human yen for things. And what he would now like to present to the public, a month into fall, in 40-degree weather, as the leaves drop like cheap souvenirs of hotter days, is a fan.
His is not just any fan. It’s a bladeless fan. A fan that upends how we’ve under-stood fans for more than 125 years. A fan that promises to eradicate “buffeting,” whatever that is, and maybe even save lives. A fan that costs $300.
“No one’s thought of a different way of doing it,” says Dyson, sinking into a couch at his suite in the Mandarin Oriental the morning after the Air Multiplier’s launch. He’s in socks, fresh from the Today Show, on which a school-girlish Matt Lauer declared the fan “revolutionary.” The room is littered with fans. “People accept the same old way of doing it,” Dyson continues. “Airplanes had propellers until 1942, until someone found an alternative, which has proven to be much better.”
We like to imagine that our cleverest contraptions are the results of divine inspiration—the genius inventor’s eureka moment. The Air Multiplier had none. It began as a fluke in the testing lab and emerged three years, 250 iterations, and about 30 employees later as a radical variation on a common household good. This is largely a testament to creative engineering, however oxymoronic the notion. Dyson found inspiration in everything from an airplane wing to the aura of the human body. And the engineering became the marketing. As the fan’s tagline says, “No blades, no buffeting.”
For Dyson, technological discovery is a triumph against the odds, a pursuit he likens to long-distance running, his high school sport of choice. We’re all familiar with the tale of his bagless vacuum cleaner, which came together after 15 years and 5,126 prototypes. Within two years of its launch, it was the best-selling vacuum cleaner in the U.K. and has gone on to sell more than 31 million units worldwide. Today the Dyson company has around 2,400 employees. Its headquarters in the U.K. is a research-and-development machine. Dyson has quadrupled spending on R & D during the past five years, which means that its products, whether vacuum cleaners or fans, are meticulously researched, prototyped ad infinitum, and tested until they break. “Dyson starts out with the principle that they’re going to make a significantly better product than what’s on the market today,” says Clive Roux, executive director of the Industrial Designers Society of America. “They achieve that through invention, innovation, and design.” The company has toiled its way into the hearts of consumers, earning a sterling reputation for immaculately engineered (if pricey) goods. (Though it suffered something of a PR blow six years ago, when it exported its manufacturing to Malaysia.)
The last time the fan underwent a major renovation was in the early 1880s, when someone got the idea to attach blades to a motor. It was like Dylan plugging in at Newport, and ever since, the appliance has figured inelegantly in our stuffy homes. As Dyson points out, blades can be dangerous, especially for small children. What’s more, he says, “One of the reasons people don’t like fans is the buffeting from them.” He’s referring to the choppy wind currents that spinning blades produce. “But if you can replace that with what feels like the gentle breeze you get when you open a window, then I think people are more likely to be fans of fans,” he says, grinning provisionally at his own joke.
The Air Multiplier accomplishes that by drawing in air through a motor at the fan’s base, and squeezing it back out of a 1.3-millimeter slit in the ringlike head. The air then rips over a wing-shaped ramp, which sucks along additional surrounding air. Thus air traveling from the motor to your sweat-laden body is multiplied by a factor of 15. “For free, if you like,” Dyson says.
The initial idea was a happy accident. The Air Multiplier rose out of a flaw in Dyson’s no-touch hand dryer, which uses high-pressure jets of air to scrape water off hands. During testing, engineers observed that the dryer was drawing in huge amounts of surrounding air, effectively magnifying total airflow. “This is a concept of using a blade of air to move other air,” says Sarah Liddell, a research manager at Dyson’s headquarters. “So some brainstorming went around this idea of ‘What do you use moving air for?’ The answer: ‘Cooling. A fan. A bladeless fan.’ That was the thought process.”
The next step was examining how exactly a fan cools. Dyson discovered that when skin is hot, the entire body bakes in its own steamy corona. “I notice this, playing tennis particularly, that my hands are sweating,” he says, extending his arm. “If I put my hand out away from my aura like this, my hand dries. What a fan does is it blows away that aura.” As the air dries your skin, it cools it too. The effect is comparable to what happens when you jump out of a pool. You feel cold, even if the outside temperature is 90 degrees, because water evaporates off you, acting like an enormous refrigerator.
To maximize the cooling effect, Dyson’s engineers turned to aircraft design. They knew that air accelerates as it passes over an airfoil (the shape of a plane’s wing), decreasing pressure above the wing. Since high pressure always travels toward low pressure, the air below the wing starts pushing upward. When that force exceeds the force of gravity, the plane lifts off the ground. The same principle, they realized, could be applied to the Air Multiplier, using the negative pressure to draw in surrounding air. Engineers tested hundreds of angles, finally settling on an airfoil cocked at 16 degrees. Dyson protects company secrets like the Church of Scientology, and its founder keeps mum on why that angle works best or what happens when it’s, say, 15 degrees. “It took a lot of R & D to work that out, so that’s not something we give away,” he says. Whatever the secret, the result is that the fan uses 40 watts of energy, whereas typical portable fans use 50 to 200 watts. Moreover, it eliminates the choppiness that results from whirling blades. No blades. No buffeting.
At the same time, the staff experimented with the fan’s figure, which is a “hula hoop on a stick” to some, “a small portal into another world” to others. Dyson selected a ring attached to a cylindrical base for explicit aesthetic reasons. “They’re just two powerful, iconic shapes, really,” he says. “I always like it when cylinders meet something else, particularly something circular. I find it very pleasing. When you do engineering drawing and you do a cylinder with something else that’s round, you get a wonderfully complex shape. As a draftsman, I always find that fun.” This is classic Dyson, and it’s written all over his products: he is, in his heart of hearts, a big old nerd.
The culture of Dyson’s company is a reflection of the man himself. His personal narrative goes something like this: Norfolk tinkerer from humble roots devotes himself to improving domestic life and succeeds through true grit. It’s no coincidence that he talks about his products the same way. He personalizes them, plays up their rags-to-riches narratives, makes them extensions of his own Horatio Alger story. This serves a purpose: a $300 fan coming off an assembly line has infinitely less consumer appeal than a $300 fan that’s a likable character in a familiar tale, with Dyson as the sympathetic narrator. It’s a great sales pitch. Smooth as can be. No buffeting.