Trevor Baylis was quite a swimmer in his youth, representing Britain at the age of 15. So it wasn’t entirely surprising that he ended up working for a swimming pool firm in Surrey before setting up his own company. He continued his swimming passion – working as a part-time TV stuntman doing underwater feats – but also followed an interest in inventing things. One of the projects he began work on in 1991 was to have widespread impact despite – or rather because of – being a ‘low-tech’ solution to a massive problem.
Having seen a documentary about AIDS in Africa he began to see the underlying need for something which could help communication. Much of the AIDS problem lies in the lack of awareness and knowledge across often isolated rural communities – people don’t know about causes or prevention of this devastating disease. And this reflects a deeper problem – of communication. Experts estimate that less than 20% of the world’s population have access to a telephone, while even fewer have a regular supply of electricity, much less television or Internet access. Very low literacy levels exclude most people from reading newspapers and other print media.
Radio is an obvious solution to the problem – but how can radio work when the receivers need power and in many places mains electricity is simply non-existent. An alternative is battery power – but batteries are equally problematic – even if they were of good quality and freely available via village stores people couldn’t afford to buy them regularly. In countries where $1 a day is the standard wage, batteries can cost from a day’s to a week’s salary. The HIV/AIDS pandemic also means that household incomes are under increased pressure as earners become too ill to work while greater expenditure goes towards healthcare, leaving nothing for batteries.
What was needed was a radio which ran on some different source of electricity. In thinking about the problem Baylis remembered the old-fashioned telephones of pre-war days which had wind-up handles to generate power. He began experimenting, linking together odd items such as a hand brace, an electric motor and a small radio. He found that the brace turning the motor would act as a generator that would supply sufficient electricity to power the radio. By adding a clockwork mechanism he found that a spring could be wound up – and as it unwound the radio would play. This first working prototype ran for 14 minutes on a two minute wind. Trevor had invented a clockwork (wind-up) radio! As a potential solution to the communication problem the idea had real merit. The trouble was that, like thousands of entrepreneurs before him, Trevor couldn’t convince others of this. He spent nearly four years approaching major radio manufacturers like Philips and Marconi but to no avail. But luck often plays a significant part in the innovation story – and this was no exception. The idea came to the attention of some TV researchers and the product was featured in 1994 on the BBC TV programme Tomorrow’s World, which showcased interesting and exciting new inventions.