The Zig-Zag Invention of the Dyson Airblade

Check out this story about how an invention emerged from an improvisational, wandering, zig-zag process, as James Dyson tells us about the Dyson Airblade hand dryer, in a letter to the editor in this morning’s Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. is bold when it comes to invention. In 2014 there were more patents granted in the U.S. than in any other country, but there is a global competition to develop the best technology. The U.S. government isn’t alone in wanting to attract highly inventive companies to develop intellectual property on its shores (“Tax Writers Favor Breaks for Patents,” Business & Tech., May 6).

Research and development is a risky business; there are no eureka moments and no certainty of success. Often the biggest breakthroughs are the ones you least expect. The Dyson Airblade hand dryer, for example, was a rather fortuitous result of a failed experiment. The technology we were originally working on is still in the labs, but the unexpected result is in washrooms around the world.

You can’t predict the outcome of R&D, and often it ends in failure—albeit failures that teach you valuable lessons and spur on future advances. But by encouraging companies to invest in R&D, you also create a highly skilled, highly paid workforce and boost exports in the process, as other countries demand the high technology that results.

The patent box has proved itself to be a very effective way of encouraging investment into R&D in the U.K. However, to be most effective, it must focus on the development of genuine technologies that improve our lives. So embrace the incentives—keep tinkering, keep researching and keep inventing!

James Dyson

Malmesbury, England

One thought on “The Zig-Zag Invention of the Dyson Airblade

  1. Quoting: “Research and development is a risky business; there are no eureka moments and no certainty of success.” Very true if risks are taken. The more risks are controlled in an attempt to minimize them (“Oh, we better cut off this effort – the chances of failure are pretty high!”). The other two points mentioned in the piece are extremely important: (1) Failures only happen when time and effort are not spent reflecting upon what happened – to learn from them; and (2) the efforts and the risks (and the learning from the failures) should be made on efforts directed toward improving the general good.

    The very first research conference I attended as a graduate student had a keynote address that included a whole series of slides with row upon row of equations. Upon completion, a well known researcher asked: “Are you aware that the problem you’ve been addressing has been shown to not apply to the situation you noted?” To which the speaker responded: “Yes I am; and if you check [a journal I don’t recall…], you’ll find an even better effort.” Why he was funded depends upon when it was shown to be irrelevant. Why he didn’t talk about the best approach is a mystery. Whether or not he reflected upon other possible useful applications is unknown…

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