Production Values

A sideways glance at capitalism through some of its products.  This month: the Dyson Cyclone vacuum cleaner

Far from being a revolutionary invention, the inventor of the Dyson Cyclone vacuum cleaner (James Dyson) made no attempt to hide that the idea behind the invention he patented was nicked from seeing dust extraction equipment in a sawmill, a technology that has been around for the best part of a century.

The product however almost never got made due to the enormous costs of licencing and patenting.  This forced Dyson to look for investment from major manufacturers. The market-leader – Hoover – was one company that was offered the option of investing.  They declined as the product (which doesn’t need filter bags) kind of challenged their basic business model (which relies on the ongoing sale of replacement filter bags worth 100s of millions of dollars each year).  Hoover’s vice-president regretted in hindsight that “Hoover as a company did not take the product technology off Dyson”.  And what would they have done with it ? – “it would have lain on the shelf and not been used.”

Needless to say, now that it has established itself, the Dyson company is hardly acting like a “new broom” (for want of a better phrase) – instead they have been particularly quick to use patent law to protect against anyone coming close to copying their supposedly “original” design .

Portrayed endlessly as a society which incentivises invention and rewards risk, capitalism arguably often does the very opposite. Despite the rags to riches storylines, the best way of getting very rich is usually to make sure you are pretty rich to start with.

Rather than a testament to the creativity of the individual, let alone the magic of the market system, next time you hoover (or perhaps, “Dyson”) the carpet, think of all the useful products that never made it because of the artificial hurdle that is the patenting system that capitalism requires.  All the talk of the lifeblood of capitalism being the plucky little entrepreneur with a great new idea is nonsense: the last thing capitalists want is another capitalist joining them to share out the spoils of the class war – even if it means a great invention for gathering dust just has to (apologies) gather dust.

NEXT MONTH: we take a look at that modern must-have accessory, bottled water.

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