Archive profile: Trevor Baylis, inventor of the clockwork radio
Image credit: David Harrison/eyevine
Trevor Baylis, the British inventor famed for his clockwork radio design, died on Monday 5 March 2018 at the age of 80. In an interview with E&T’s sister magazine Engineering Management in 2007, he talked about his career, and his belief that “anyone can have a good idea and turn it into something that works”.
Think of an ‘inventor’, and the chances are you’ll come up with Trevor Baylis, the man famous for the wind-up radio. To the British at least the words ‘mad’ and ‘inventor’ are never far apart and Baylis is aware of the stereotypes that go with his profession. But, he believes, admit to the world at large that you are an inventor and you risk some of your best ideas being stolen.
Baylis is passionate about inventors making sure that “when the money rolls in, the inventor isn’t rolled out”. His organisation, Trevor Baylis Brands plc has at its core the encouragement, support and guidance of inventors, while ensuring that their ideas are protected from unscrupulous backers. One of his favourite sayings is: “Nobody pays you for a good idea, but they might pay you for a piece of paper which says you own that idea.”
Baylis is convinced that we all have an inventor inside us: “Anyone can have a good idea and turn it into something that works. It’s not magic. If you find yourself trying to solve a problem, you are halfway to inventing something.” From a very young age Baylis enjoyed making things with his Meccano set and has always been creative.
Born in Kilburn in 1937 and then raised in Southall, London, his education was disrupted by the Second World War (he failed his ‘11 plus’ exams). Nevertheless, he got a job at the Soil Mechanics Laboratory in Southall and studied mechanical and structural engineering by day release at the local technical college.
His other passion at this time was swimming. Baylis tells of how he learnt to swim in a nearby canal during the War, eventually joining a swimming club and – by the time he was 15 – swimming for Great Britain. After completing his National Service as a physical training instructor, he left the Army in 1961 and was able to combine his two passions – swimming and engineering – in a job as a salesman, and later work in research and development, at Purley Pools. His life then took a rather unorthodox turn. At an exhibition with his boss, Baylis suggested that sales of the company’s swimming pools might be increased if he took a swim in one of their exhibited pools. He plunged in, crowds gathered and, the story goes, sales of the company’s pools increased. At one of these events, Baylis’ swimming prowess was so impressive that he was approached to become a stunt man and professional swimmer. Baylis, admitting to always having been a bit of a ‘show off ’, accepted, and so began a new career that included stunt performances alongside Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and appearances as an underwater escapologist, ‘Ramesis 11’, in a Berlin Circus.
The money he eventually raised from this work was sufficient to set up Baylis’ own business, Shotline Steel Swimming Pools, which still supplies schools today. Baylis’ experiences as a stuntman and professional diver opened his eyes to the needs of the physically disabled. Many of his fellow stuntmen and women had suffered accidents in the course of their work that meant they were either permanently or temporarily disabled. This triggered Baylis’ creativity to the extent that by 1985 he had invented a range of products called ‘Orange Aids’. Eventually over 250 different products were made and Baylis says that this achievement is the one of which he is most proud.
Baylis is most well known for his invention of the wind-up radio and the story behind it has passed into folklore. Nevertheless it is worth retelling as an illustration of how a product so critical to some of the world’s poorest people almost didn’t get to market. In 1991 Baylis was watching a BBC documentary about AIDS in Africa in which a reporter was stressing the value of education as a means to counter the virus. However, as many Africans lived without electricity and couldn’t afford to buy batteries, they had no access to radios and therefore there was no easy means of communication. Then Baylis had his eureka moment. He figured that the technology that had been utilised in his granny’s wind-up gramophone might be adapted to make a wind-up radio. By the end of the programme, Baylis had conceived his first prototype. Three months later he had produced a version that proved the basic principle was workable.
Then came a long, hard struggle for Baylis to get backing for his invention. The idea was rejected by many large corporations, including the Design Council who refused to help him. On the point of giving up, Baylis’ big break finally came in 1994 when the radio was featured on ‘Tomorrow’s World’. Although significant backing and interest had now been raised, the radio still faced significant technical set backs in its design, in particular getting it to play loudly enough and for long enough. These were eventually resolved and in 1995 the first wind-up radios were produced by BayGen Power, employing disabled workers, in Cape Town, South Africa. The design has since been revised several times and the range now includes smaller and lighter models more suitable for the western consumer market and a solar powered version which works without wind-up assistance when the sun shines. Millions of the radios have now been sold around the world and this has resulted in Baylis being awarded numerous plaudits and accolades for his work. These include BBC Design Awards for Best Product and Best Design, an OBE for Services to Africa, the World Vision Award for Development Initiative, a Presidential Gold Medal from the Institute of Mechanical Engineering and no less than 11 honorary degrees from UK universities. He has been much in demand for TV and radio appearances, including being given his own ‘Inventor’s’ slot on Channel Four’s ‘Big Breakfast’, performances on the BBC’s once-popular ‘The Generation Game’, as well as being the subject of ‘This is Your Life’. In addition, two critically acclaimed BBC ‘QED’ documentaries have been filmed featuring Baylis’ work.
Baylis has also undertaken extensive work with the British Council overseas, having toured and lectured in many African States as well as Australia, India, Palestine, Israel and Bahrain. He is in frequent demand as an after dinner speaker, numbering organisations such as the Law Society, Microsoft and Unilever among his clients. He has even dined with Her Majesty the Queen and Nelson Mandela at a State Banquet.
Although none of Baylis’ later inventions received the same acclaim as his wind-up radios, he has nevertheless continued to develop new ideas. For example, in 2001 Baylis walked 100 miles across Namibia in order to raise money for the Mines Advisory Group while at the same time demonstrating his new invention – electric shoes. The shoes were designed to charge batteries for cell phones, MP3 players and so on, by pedestrian power alone. They didn’t catch on, but Baylis remained undeterred. A more recent invention, the Eco Media Player, uses Baylis’ wind up technology to recharge the batteries of portable digital media players.
Baylis has also written an autobiography, ‘Clock This: My Life as an Inventor’. In his usual exuberant and enthusiastic style, Baylis takes the reader through an entertaining journey of his life. And it is Baylis’ enthusiasm and energy that exudes through every aspect of his life. Whether he’s talking to a group of students at a conferment ceremony, a nation of school children on a BBC programme to celebrate National Science Week or a room full of business people, Baylis’ message is always: “Follow your heart and remember life is not necessarily about money. Do what gives you most pleasure.” Today Baylis dedicates most of his time to promoting the work of Trevor Baylis Brands plc, and organisation that provides a service he says he wished was available when he was bringing his own products to market. Although rarely does he see truly original inventions these days, Baylis and his associates will evaluate those that they do see and – for a commission – help to take the viable ones to market.
“Britain is appalling as a nation when it comes to looking after its inventions,” says Baylis. Perhaps with the help of his organisation, inventors can be more confident that their ideas will have their day – in the UK. Certainly if Baylis’ enthusiasm and inspiration are anything to go by, that much is guaranteed.