Created | Updated Mar 5, 2018
The key to success is to risk thinking unconventional thoughts. Convention is the enemy of progress. As long as you've got slightly more perception than the average wrapped loaf, you could invent something.
- Trevor Baylis CBE, inventor
As the River Thames approaches London on its way to the sea it encounters some islets, some of them called Eyot or Ait, which it has to flow around. One that is large enough to be inhabited is Eel Pie Island, so named (it is said) because King Henry VIII used to stop the royal barge there to pick up eel pies on his way to Hampton Court Palace.
Relaxing at his home on Eel Pie Island in 1991, Trevor Baylis turned on the TV. There was a harrowing report on the spread of HIV and AIDS across Africa, and how large numbers of people were totally ignorant of the risks because there was no easy way to get that sort of information to the vast majority of Africa's 600 million population. Radio would be an excellent way of doing that, but most people had no electricity, and even where batteries might be available they just couldn't afford them. A set of batteries could cost more than a week's food for a whole family.
Baylis started thinking about his old wind-up gramophone and how the energy to drive it was stored by a clockwork mechanism. In his home workshop he found a carpenter's brace, not unlike the winding handle of a gramophone, and started experimenting. He found he could use the brace to drive a small dynamo to generate enough power for a transistor radio. Adding some simple clockwork allowed the brace to wind up a spring, which would drive the dynamo by itself as it slowly unwound.
Like many brilliant ideas, it was essentially that simple. After many hours' work he achieved his first working model, which ran a radio for 14 minutes on a two-minute wind. He had invented the Clockwork Radio. The design was later improved so that it could run a radio for an hour on a 25-second wind. Later enhancements included the addition of solar cells so that winding was needed only after dark1.
Naturally, he did his best to promote the invention, but nobody took it seriously. He approached firms such as Marconi, Phillips, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, the Design Council, and various other large firms, organisations, government departments and agencies, and other bodies. Nobody wanted to know. It was commercially flawed, they said. The economics were wrong. One rejection note from an influential body said:
It is very unlikely that UK industry could enter profitably into a licensing agreement with this product. The major customers are third world countries which, with severe debts, would not be in a position to pay for this device.
Baylis can well afford to laugh now as he recalls how he has seen whole villages of 400 to 500 people sitting around one of his radios, and how big business always seems to do its best to deter and suppress invention and originality.
It was the BBC that provided Baylis with his big break. In April 1994 his invention was featured on Tomorrow's World, a TV showcase for new ideas and inventions. The possibilities were seized on by a corporate accountant and a South African entrepreneur. Details of the invention were broadcast in South Africa on a Johannesburg radio station. Life Assurance boss Hylton Appelbaum, head of the Liberty Life Group, heard the broadcast, was impressed, and set about helping to fund production.
A company called BayGen Power Industries was set up in Cape Town, South Africa, with Baylis owning the patents and trademarks. They wanted to employ disabled people to do the assembly work, and got various organisations for the disabled to become partners in the venture, with Liberty Life providing funds to begin production. Further technical development work was contributed in the UK by electronics engineers at Bristol University. Before long, some 250 disabled people in South Africa were producing thousands of clockwork radios per month.
Baylis later recalled his first visit to the factory:
As we approached the gate I caught the first glimpse of the words BayGen Power Manufacturing. Seeing the first syllable of my name in letters three feet high was a milestone in my life. It was the culmination and vindication of years of struggle. My mind went back to the rejections I had had, and it was all too much for me. It brought tears to my eyes.
During that visit to South Africa he was invited to present one of the first of the Freeplay Radios (as they were branded) to come off the production line to Nelson Mandela. He was subsequently to receive many awards and medals for his invention, and became a celebrity, appearing on TV and being presented to royalty.
Subsequently, to Baylis's disappointment, the production facility in South Africa was closed down, and production moved to China.
Trevor Baylis, OBE
Baylis was born in London in 1937. By the age of 15 he was swimming for Great Britain in the national team, but he left school at 16 with no formal qualifications. He was, however, apprenticed to an engineering firm and also studied at a technical college, which enabled him to gain a basic qualification in mechanical engineering. During his National Service he became a Physical Training instructor.
After National Service he got a job as technical sales representative for a swimming pool company. This later led to a job as a stunt man, and thence to performing as an underwater escape artist at the Berlin Circus, where he earned enough to be able to buy the house on Eel Pie Island.
Some of his fellow stunt men got injured or even disabled - it's a dangerous occupation - and Trevor started to invent various gadgets to help disabled people live a fuller life: strange-looking but useful attachments for wheelchairs, for example, foot-operated scissors, that sort of thing. Over the years he has thought up over 200 inventions.
As well as coming up with other ideas - for example, using a piezo-electric crystal embedded in the heel of a boot to generate electrical power while walking - Baylis is passionate about getting for today's inventors a far better deal than he ever got. The Trevor Baylis Foundation has been set up to help inventors decide whether or not to proceed with their idea, and gives advice on patents, finance, marketing and all the many things it takes to turn a pipe-dream2 into brilliant reality. He was awarded the OBE in 1997 and upgraded to CBE in 2014. Baylis died in March 2018, aged 80.