I studied architecture at university and realized that modern architecture was much more about engineering than it was about design of concrete or brick buildings. So I became very interested in engineering, and realized that objects, things we use every day, the technology they use and the engineering is what makes them interesting. I think if a product looks good, but it doesn't work well, ultimately you come to loathe it. If it works well, you come to love it. And if it's well-designed, you love it even more. And vacuum cleaners were a sort of an unloved area. It's just sort of a commodity thing that everybody hated using. I hated using them.
I always assumed the vacuum cleaner bag was where the dust was deposited, and the power of the motor, that's what gave it strong suction. But one day I didn't have a spare bag, so I had to empty the bag in the dust bin and Scotch tape it back up together again. And I was amazed to discover when I put it back in the vacuum cleaner that I still hadn't got any suction. And I suddenly realized that all the air flow that went through the system had to go through the bag. And the bag is blocked, not because it's full but because the very first dust that goes into the bag or filter, the dust goes straight for those little holes and blocks them. And the blocking of the holes restricts the air flow, which, in turn, restricts the suction and the pick-up.
So when I realized this, I realized that a vacuum cleaner is really a very inefficient thing. I was in a lumber yard one day and looked up on the roof and saw this huge cyclone, 30-foot tall thing. I noticed all the ducting going down to the saws and various machines in the lumber yard, and I realized what it was doing was collecting all this fine dust from these machines and collecting it at the top without ever clogging or blocking. It was working all day long, taking this fine dust, and it separates it by centrifugal force. The dust and dirty air goes into it and is spun at high speed, and the dust is thrown out by centrifugal force and the clean air comes out of a chimney in the center. And the dust can't get into the center of the device. If you drive your car fast around a corner, you get thrown outwards, and that's what centrifugal force is. And that's what happens to the dust particles in this centrifuge. That's the basic principle.
So I thought, ah, well, I wonder if that would work on a small scale in a vacuum cleaner, because I want a vacuum cleaner that doesn't get clogged, doesn't lose suction. So I started developing cyclones, and it took actually 5,127 or so before I got it right over a period of five years. Very Edison-like, yes, trial and error. Although it's not as great an invention as the light bulb. It sounds boring, but in fact, building lots and lots of prototypes is fascinating. I always think failure is more important than success because you learn something from failure. The process of gathering yourself together and overcoming the disappointment and of trying another idea is it's a sort of drug, actually, for me. I just have to go on doing it every day. It's fascinating. And I wish children were marked at school by the number of failures they made. I think they should be given extra marks for having failed and learned how to solve a problem.
The problems turned out to be the fact that unlike the sawmill, where all you're doing all day is collecting a particular size of dust, with a vacuum cleaner, you're collecting everything from antique scissors and socks to very, very fine submicron particles, rather the same size of particle as cigarette smoke. The state of the art at the time I started was that cyclones were good down to 20 microns. I had to get it down to a quarter of a micron. So I had to do really a quantum leap there in improving the efficiency of separation of very fine particles and then find a way of collecting these larger particles which would be rejected by the fine cyclone. But the big breakthrough was realizing that to separate the other things, you needed an anti-cyclone. Instead of wanting to speed the dust up, which is what you do in a fine cyclone, To collect socks and scissors and carpet fluff, you want to do the opposite. You want to decelerate it. So I had to build a cyclone that decelerated it, yet prevented things escaping from it. So that was quite a difficult thing to do.
But once I got that, I knew I was there. I was hugely in debt, so I had to do something in a hurry. I certainly couldn't afford to go and make it. So I went out to try and sell the technology to all the people who should have bought it, people who are now my competitors. Most of them had a good look at it. Some said no immediately. Some sort of wavered for a bit, and then I didn't hear from them. But what I concluded at the end of it was, well, they were making a very nice living out of selling bags, but also, they just didn't really want to change.
If they're not being interested in making improvements and changing, there's an opportunity here [in the United States]. I licensed the technology here and in Japan. And that was good because that kept the wolf from the door. They were selling it for $2,000 a machine in Japan. I got slightly upset that they weren't selling it at a normal price, and I had huge problems with my licensee here. When that was over, I said, I had enough of this. I'm going to make it myself. So I set up my own factory in England. No money for advertising or stock, even, or a factory. I borrowed someone else's factory to make it. It was in a very salubrious place called Wrexham, just on the border of Wales. We weren't allowed to expand our factory in England because, you know, dark, satanic mills. People don't like factories. So we manufacture it in Malaysia. It was sold largely by word of mouth. We got to number one in England in two years. And then we started selling it abroad, and we now sell it in 44 countries.
We're launching two new vacuum cleaners which have a ball instead of a wheel to maneuver them. It's quite interesting this whole business of vacuum cleaners. It's not that people have been saying to us, "Vacuum cleaners are difficult to maneuver," because all vacuum cleaners are the same. But we've always thought vacuum cleaners were difficult to maneuver. So we've engineered a way to make them incredibly easy to maneuver and made them lighter in the process, because people do complain about the weight. The best analogy really is a computer mouse. You have a single rolling ball so that you can go in any direction. You get just the same power, just the same pick-up, all the same features. But it's smaller. Previously if you wanted something small and light, you had to compromise on suction or something, but with this you don't. We're making very thin walls in everything so you use less plastic and less energy making it, and it becomes lighter.
I'm aware of things that annoy me, that don't work well, that use ridiculous amounts of electricity or water or I hate using them. That's how the hand dryer thing occurred. I always hated hand dryers. You stand there for ages, and they don't get dry. You get fed up, and you wipe your hands on your trousers and walk out. The problem with them is what they're doing is they're trying to evaporate the water off your hands. They're trying literally to turn the water into steam, and that takes a long time. And we were playing around with what are called air knives, which is where you send a jet of air very, very fast through a very narrow gap. And so we made a hand dryer using this air knife principle. And it wipes the water off your hands like a windscreen wiper blade, like a squeegee.
I own the business and I've designed these machines. Once you've got it, I'm going to look after you and make sure you're happy with it. I always liked this business of finding sort of rather disgusting things, like hand dryers and vacuum cleaners and making them fun to use rather than dull. I mean, there's problems everywhere when you start looking.
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