Lightning Interview: How James Dyson Could've Fixed the Oil Disaster

Illustration for article titled Lightning Interview: How James Dyson Could've Fixed the Oil Disaster

Sir James Dyson, the man behind the bagless vacuum and the bladeless fan, designs products that solve problems. We caught up with him and talked about one of the biggest engineering problems the world currently faces: the Gulf oil disaster.


Dyson's design ethos is all about solving problems by removing the extra. He famously got rid of the vacuum bag and the fan blade (though his newest fans are considerably bigger than their predecessors), and, as it turns out, he had once designed a machine that worked toward a different type of removal: getting oil out of water. We had a fleeting few minutes to talk with Sir James about what we can learn from the disaster in the Gulf.

Giz: What do you think about the iPhone 4?

Sir James: I don't know, I haven't tried it yet. I don't think I've even seen one.

Giz: OK, how do you feel about tablets?

Sir James: Like the iPad? I think the size is very good, because I've always thought a laptop was too big to put on your lap, and it's too hot to put on your lap, and as I'm now 63 I find an iPhone too small. So for me, that sort of size is exactly right.


But I'm more interested in solving problems—taking things that are a problem in everyday life and solving them. Developing technology to make it do something for us.

Illustration for article titled Lightning Interview: How James Dyson Could've Fixed the Oil Disaster

Giz: In that sense, one of the biggest engineering problems we're facing is the oil spill…

Sir James: The frustrating thing is that I used to make landing craft—high speed landing craft—a device called an oleovator that licked up the oil. It had a moving conveyor belt which you put into the oil on the surface, which drew it up on the conveyor belt and it in drums. The only trouble was, I only ever sold 3 of them, because the oil companies weren't interested in buying something, because they buy things when they have a spill, but they don't buy them when they don't have a spill.


But I wish that I was still making them. I could produce 5000 of them instantly, and go and help them clear it up.

Giz: Do you think that whole gamut of engineering solutions has been explored for that disaster?


Sir James: Oh no. The trouble is that nobody takes notice when there isn't a disaster, and when there is a disaster everybody expects the thing to be there to solve the problem. But you've got to be prepared. I think the oil companies, and the people who are interested in preserving the coastline and marine life and so on, they've got to be prepared to invest, in case there's a spill, in case there's an accident. Because it can occur anywhere at anytime. It doesn't need to occur by a well, where they're drilling. It can come out of a ship, as it frequently does. So you've got to be ready. [Dyson]



I'm no scientist, so this may seem like a really dumb remark.

What I don't understand is why there isn't some sort of shut-off mechanism. I know they have that thing that pinches the pipe closed in case of a leak, but it failed; no, I don't mean like that. I mean like an off-switch, so to speak. If you want to turn your lights off, you hit a switch. If you want to turn your stove off, you turn a knob. Where is the "off-valve" for these wells? Did they not build one? I mean, this oil is basically in perpetual motion, which is obviously physically impossible. So why in the world can't we literally just stop the flow? I mean, if they have to PUMP it, can't they stop pumping it? Or was it just a reserve and the oil is escaping and rising due to the immense amount of pressure underwater, also factoring oil's density?

Forgive me if this seems like a really dumb question. I know nothing about oil pumps.