James Dyson--inventor, self-promoter and Britain's most famous vacuum salesman--constantly seeks minor irritations. If the batteries in your hand vacuum go dead just when you need it, you plug it in to recharge and grab a broom, right? Not Dyson. If pet hair clogs the vac and ruins its suction, you open it and clear it out. Dyson embarks on a research project. To him, these issues aren't minor, and they're not irritations. They're business opportunities.
Before he started selling vacuums on TV, Dyson made a name for himself as an innovative industrial designer, finding novel ways to improve on everyday objects from wheelbarrows to washing machines. Having made his mark in upright vacuums, he has now turned his attention to two more gadgets that require moving air at high speed: the handheld rechargeable vacuum and the rest-room hand dryer.
Most hand vacuums run on the same primitive rechargeable batteries found in power tools and cordless phones. Dyson's hand vac, the new DC16 Root 6, has a lithium-ion battery like the one in your cell phone. Regular batteries can take nine hours to charge; the Root 6 charges in three. In most hand vacs, the dust catcher sits between the nozzle and the fan. As the catcher fills up, the fan has a harder and harder time pulling in grit. Dyson's uses the same "cyclone" technology pioneered in his upright vacuum, spinning debris off into a reservoir away from the fan. The reservoir can be full to the brim, and the Root 6 still won't lose suction.
Dyson vacs generally cost three times as much as the next best thing, and the Root 6, at $150, is no exception. The prices haven't stopped Dyson from becoming a dominant force in Europe's and Japan's vacuum markets. But the price-conscious U.S., where Dyson upright vacs have been selling since 2002, is tougher. Big brands, feeling threatened, are quick to advertise their own Dyson-like benefits at lower costs. Black & Decker already has a Root 6 competitor, the 18 Volt Pivot Vac. There's no lithium-ion battery, but for $60 it picks up dirt using something it calls "cyclonic action."
Dyson is unfazed by the competition. "Ultimately, I think true innovation wins over false marketing," he says. "It just takes longer."
It didn't take long for Dyson to reinvent the public-rest-room hand dryer. Most dryers blow hot air on your hands to evaporate the water pooled on the surface. Dyson's Airblade instead blasts the water off your hands with a jet of air traveling at 400 m.p.h. The hurricane-force wind squeegees water into a drain; in a trial run, it took 10 seconds for our hands to go from dripping wet to bone dry. As a hygienic bonus, expelled air and collected water are thoroughly filtered. The Airblade hits gas or, rather, petrol stations in Britain this fall and will probably find its way into U.S. rest rooms next year.