Who do they think they are?
Railway inventor, George Stephenson, assesses James Dyson
Romance and invention
James Dyson's hero is a great railway engineer. Sadly it's not me.
In name let alone reputation, a plain George could never measure up to an Isambard Kingdom. Consequently, James will not value my comments on his life as much as he would Brunel's. Yet he seems a charming man and I'm sure he'll respect what I have to say.
Particularly since we have what you might call a romantic attachment. We're not just fellow inventors of some international note, we're connected by family name.
A Miss Hindmarsh became very dear to the pair of us, providing both comfort and guidance.
In 1968, James married Deirdre Hindmarsh. He was twenty-one, with no secure job. She is his anchor in the very turbulent sea that has been his life. At times, she was the only breadwinner.
When I was that age, I wooed Elizabeth Hindmarsh secretly in her father's orchard. She was to become my rock. The coincidence is not precise because I didn't marry Betty when I was a young man and neither did she provide financial support at any time during my inventive life. Farmer Hindmarsh thought a lowly miner like me entirely unsuitable for his daughter's hand. It took twenty years and a considerable upturn in my fortunes for him to relent.
Photo: James Dyson, shanghaist.com
Photo: George Stephenson, Wiki Commons
Photo: ‘Rocket’, lookandlearn.com
Photo: air multiplier, lightstalkers.org
George Stephenson’s opinion was interpreted by Will Coe, October 2011
Feel free to comment on this article..
My ‘Rocket’ , his air multiplier
Because I married into the Hindmarshes long before he did, I consider myself a kind of great uncle to James. I've always wanted to pass on avuncular wisdom, even when I didn't know what it meant.
The point I'm making about our wives is that men who create fame and fortune by tinkering in their sheds with technical drawings, metals and plastics can have romantic and loyal souls. We may be obsessive men. We may not make good drinking or shopping companions. We may not be renowned for giving up space in our lives to other people. We may not always have the quietest of temperaments. We can still be fine husbands.
The other reasons why I feel an affinity towards James Dyson are perhaps more predictable.
It is the lot of inventors to struggle. I don't want to make too much of the obstacles I had to overcome. Molehills to James' mountains, really.
At eighteen I was an illiterate engineman at Water Row Pit, Newburn. I paid to go to night school, worked my way up to Black Callerton colliery 'brakesman' and had to cobble shoes and mend clocks to make ends meet. My first wife died before we reached our fifth anniversary leaving me with a son to bring up. It wasn't until I was thirty, that events began moving more in my favour.
At eighteen, James was self-confessed Norfolk bumpkin who had a bit of a Dick Whittington moment when exposed to the delights of London art colleges. He made his mark very quickly.
The Sea Truck, Dyson's first product, was launched in 1970 while he was at the Royal College of Art. His next product, the Ballbarrow, was a modified version of a wheelbarrow using a ball to replace the wheel. He formed Kirk-Dyson with this brother-in-law to manufacture it and assigned the patent to the company rather than himself. A mistake he learnt not to repeat when he was booted out of the company for having unmarketable ideas like bagless vacuum cleaners.
'Blucher' and 'Locomotion' weren't the only steps on my way to 'Rocket', but that hardly compares to the five years and 5,127 prototypes it took before James was satisfied with his dual cyclone cleaner. Even then, his trials were only just beginning. Although I didn't invent the steam locomotive - that was down to Richard Trevithick in 1804 - I was the first to attach a passenger car to one. I was in at the beginning of a new world while James was a century behind the world's first vacuum cleaner. He invented something the world didn't know it wanted; another vacuum cleaner. Only the Japanese were impressed. A bright pink £2,000 upright vacuum cleaner, being the last thing a Japanese house needed, was the perfect status symbol. Nevertheless, it was the start he needed.
I found the Americans very accommodating. The first 'iron horses' all came from my workshops. By the time James came to dealing with them, they were less easily impressed by British technology and marketing prowess. His experiences with devious US companies mirrored my own problems with London businessmen who tried to prove that my safety lamp, which was keeping Newcastle coalminers alive, was a copy of the Davy lamp. After expensive lawsuits, both of us won through in the end.
When it comes to running his company, James puts the same kind of faith in the family as I did. It was my son Robert who did most of the work on the 'Rocket' and the Dyson empire is totally owned by James, Deirdre and their three children.
One of the great ambitions James has is to turn the company name into a verb. He wants the world to dyson their living room, not hoover it. I can't see that happening. You need to be first. I was the first to realise that railways lines had to be the same size so that they could eventually join up and the Stephenson gauge, a rather comical four foot eight and a half inches wide, is still the world's standard. They also say the men of the north east are called 'geordies' because of my safety lamp.
Maybe James will get a type of cyclone named after him… 'a force 12 dyson hit the Caribbean last night'.
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