Dimbleby lecture 2006

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The Richard Dimbleby Lecture for 2004 - Engineering the Difference by James Dyson - broadcast on BBC ONE last night (Wednesday 8 December).

It's fair to say none of us would be here if it wasn't for an engineer. John Logie Baird. A bit of a crackpot. But if it wasn't for him – and several other inventive engineers – there would be no television.

Without TV, the BBC might not exist. In which case, I wouldn't have joined millions of viewers watching the Queen's Coronation in June 1953. Stuck in remote north Norfolk, it was the first time I'd seen a television.

The experience was made all the richer by Richard Dimbleby's commentary. Over the next few years, he became a regular fixture in my mother's living room. As the presenter of Panorama, I'll always think of him as the face of serious television in my youth.

Had it not been for television, it's fair to say Richard Dimbleby and his sons wouldn't have made their reputation in quite the same way. And this lecture, held in their father's memory, wouldn't be taking place.

And here I am, the first engineer to deliver the Dimbleby Lecture. And look. I'm not wearing overalls.

If it alarms you to have to listen to an engineer, let me reassure you. Like you, I once thought engineers were quite beyond the pale. My family were all from a liberal arts background. My parents taught the arts.

And as a schoolboy, I didn't know what an engineer or even an architect did. I was a Classics scholar who went to art school. While at the RCA, I accidentally discovered the glories of making things. And I can tell you it was quite a shock when I realised I was getting interested in engineering.

Now, as I said, no engineer has ever stood here before. And the last industrialist to occupy this spot did so nearly 20 years ago. I can't help thinking, that long absence says something about the way we regard engineers and manufacturers.

Manufacturers and engineers make things to improve our lives and create wealth. But they're less important to us than those who occupy their time writing about it or worring about it.

It was this disregard for the engineer's creation – the manufactured object – that led me to stand down as Chairman of the Design Museum a month or so ago.

There are two sides to the design coin. There is serious design – making sure that the manufactured object performs its task in the best possible way. And there is styling – the essentially superficial task of making sure something looks attractive.

Both are important to me. After all, my wife is a rug designer and an artist. My daughter and son-in-law design clothes.

There are dozens of places that examine style. The V&A, art galleries, newspapers and style magazines. There are very few places that focus seriously on how and why we make things.

I felt the Museum was failing to get the right balance. I still care deeply about the Design Museum, but in its current guise, I have little to contribute. So I stepped down.

A day or so after my resignation, I turned on the radio. When I resigned, I had mentioned a Constance Spry exhibition and now the Today programme was interviewing two flower arrangers.

The interviewer cut through the florists' proclamations, about the life-enhancing effects of lilacs, to ask a very pertinent question.

Can you really, he asked, say that flower design is as important – or even the same – as designing an aeroplane?

I knew there and then that my decision to go had been correct. And that it said something about our appreciation – or rather lack of appreciation – of manufacturing.

Meanwhile, in the press, my departure was being deconstructed as a clash between the past and the future.

My values of technology and manufacturing were old-fashioned, they said. And if our economy was to succeed, I had to realise something:

I have spent 35 years making things in a country that often has little regard for its manufacturers. It has left me more convinced than ever that engineering is this country's future.

And that styling for its own sake is a lazy 20th century conceit. One that has passed its sell-by date.

We have no choice but to shake off our obsession with styling. And to focus on creating new more-advanced products.

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