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Famous Engineers: James Dyson

Famous Engineers: James DysonA new kind of wheelbarrow isn't the most exciting first invention – but its creator, James Dyson, is now a billionaire.

Dyson's engineering career started when he was asked to help to design the 'Sea Truck', a boat designed to carry materials quickly, while a student at the Royal College of Art. From there, it wasn't long before his first invention: the Ballbarrow, which replaced the wheel of a wheelbarrow with a ball to make it more stable and easier to steer. Other quirky early inventions included the Wheelboat, which could travel at 40mph on land or in the water.

But Dyson's real success came with his idea for a better vacuum cleaner. Standard vacuum cleaners work simply by sucking air through a filter which catches dirt and dust. Dyson designed a version which would spin the air it sucked up to separate the dust out, using a filter to collect only the very smallest bits. This design reduced the problem of the cleaner losing suction power as the filter clogged up.

But success didn't come quickly. After selling the vacuum in Japan and trying and failing to interest a UK manufacturer in the idea, he started his own manufacturing company. In the end, the real breakthrough wasn't in engineering, but marketing: Dyson got the cleaner selling by advertising the fact that it didn't require disposable dust-bags.

Since then, Dyson's company has continued to reinvent common products with the Airblade hand dryer, which 'scrapes' hands dry with a jet of air, and the Air Multiplier, a fan with no visible blades.

The James Dyson Foundation

Dyson has also set up the James Dyson Foundation, which provides various resources to help young people pursue careers in engineering. For example, schools and universities can request a free "Engineering Box", including a Dyson vacuum cleaner meant for students to take apart to see how it works.

Also on offer are a set of engineering challenges using household materials such as spaghetti, while at the other extreme the James Dyson Award offers £10,000 to the best invention based on the simple brief, "Design something that solves a problem".

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