In 2004, Dyson was exploring new ways to use its patented Dyson digital motor (DDM), which contains a virtually frictionless setup and was developed to make small vacuum cleaners for the Japanese market. The design team soon hooked the DDM up with an air knife, a technology in which air is forced quickly through a very small space. “We were playing around in the laboratory,” company founder James Dyson recounts of the attempts to apply the air knife to a top-secret project. “Air knives have all sorts of uses: smoothing things, flattening them out,” he hints. But, whatever they were trying to do, it wasn’t working.
Inventors have long exalted failure. Thomas Edison famously said, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” At Dyson, frustration yielded a serendipitous lightbulb moment when someone’s hands happened to be wet and the air knife dried them brilliantly. As a hand-drying solution for public restrooms, it had the poten-tial to be both more effective and energy efficient, as it did not require heat. “Our objective then became to literally scrape water off hands like a wiper blade does,” senior design manager John Churchill recalls. “We had to optimize the delivery of air, and finding the balance between airflow and pressure took a lot of failures.”