An interview with Sir James Dyson

An interview with Sir James Dyson

  • Sir James Dyson

Image courtesy of the James Dyson Foundation

Sir James Dyson tells us what inspired him to give to Cambridge and why the world needs engineers.

PhD students are incredibly important – their advanced technical ability combined with deep specialist knowledge makes them indispensable

Sir James Dyson

What inspired you to give to Cambridge?

It was something of an obvious choice. Dyson already works with Cambridge on a number of research projects, and my charity – the James Dyson Foundation – runs a successful scholarship programme. And there’s a personal connection too – both of my parents studied at Cambridge: my father at Corpus Christi and my mother at Murray Edwards (New Hall).

But I also think that the best ideas are housed in the young minds studying at the University of Cambridge. It’s certainly where some of Dyson’s brightest graduates come from. I knew that if I made a large donation to Cambridge, in the right way, the benefits would ripple out into the local area, the UK economy – and even global technological innovation.

What drew you to the idea for a new building and a centre for engineering design?

I was impressed by the exciting work happening within the Department of Engineering at Cambridge – in fact it was bursting at the seams. I heard that PhD students, who had secured funding, may not have the space to do their work – an atrocity! So I wanted to help.

How important are PhD students?

Vital. Linking universities with industry protects the excellence of British research; commercialising ideas creates patentable technology and exports. PhD students are incredibly important – their advanced technical ability combined with deep specialist knowledge makes them indispensable.

And what has your experience of Cambridge been so far?

Cambridge sees opportunities and makes the most of them. Far from treating it as a simple exercise in construction, the James Dyson Building for Engineering project has been viewed as an opportunity for research and learning. Smart sensors developed in the Department’s Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction have been included in the foundation piles; that’s just one small example. Cambridge has an overview of the activities of all of its departments and is making sure that they make the most of this chance to develop their work.

What are the things that young engineers and inventors need to succeed?

Tenacity and self-belief are crucial. As a young inventor, you come up against obstacle after obstacle. Quite often the challenges can seem insurmountable, and it’s only your own bloodymindedness that will see you through.

You’ve talked in the past about the gift fuelling ‘great technological breakthroughs’ – what issues would you like to see addressed?

The potential breakthroughs that could emerge from a building housing so many PhD students are endless. But what excites me most is that this building will give the students the facilities to collaborate on cutting-edge concepts, coming up with solutions to problems that we don’t even know exist yet.

You were self taught – so why the emphasis on training engineers?

The fact is that the world needs engineers – lots, and quickly. And we need them with the advanced education and skills that will allow them to leave university and immediately start contributing to the engineering industry. And of course, technology has moved on a great deal in my lifetime. There’s a lot of complexity – such as CAD and 3D printing – for someone to teach themselves.

Do you get frustrated that the general public sometimes think engineers are mainly about moving bits of steel about? (Although of course that can also be creative!)

Hugely frustrated! Engineering is one of the most exciting careers, full of adventure and opportunity. It’s the only job in the world in which you look at the world’s problems and work out practical ways to solve them.

Are great engineers born or made?

I believe that there’s an engineer within all of us. But to become a great engineer that spark has to be nurtured. Universities such as Cambridge equip the engineers within us with the skills to turn a vocation into a career.

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Read more about the Dyson Centre for Engineering Design

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One of the largest and highest ranked such departments in the world, Cambridge's Department of Engineering is driving forward major projects on pivotal issues such as energy, cities, transport, healthcare and manufacturing.