Wound-up inventorTrevor Baylis

Born in London, England, Baylis was a powerful swimmer, and just missed being chosen for the 1956 Olympics team. For a job, he worked for a swimming pool company, and to attract customers, performed high dives — which led to his performing as a stuntman. That, in turn, put him into contact with a lot of people who had been injured. “Many friends broke their necks,” he said. “That’s how I got involved with Orange Aids, making products for the disabled.” His father had been an engineer, and Baylis had some schooling in engineering which was interrupted by World War II, so he became an inventor to help his friends with a full line of product under the brand Orange Aids. “I made a one-handed bottle opener, foot operated scissors and so on. It was so easy — I just modified everyday things a little — but it brought tears to my eyes to see someone in a wheelchair using one of my gizmos to perhaps paint for the first time.”

A Freeplay radio. The crank on the back powers it: no batteries needed.

In 1991, Baylis saw a TV program about AIDS in Africa. The show noted that news traveled slowly in Africa due to poor communications: radio broadcasts were the best way to get information out, but even that didn’t work very well, since most people didn’t have electricity (or batteries) to power their radios. Baylis thought that was absurd: even in the Victorian era, people were able to listen to records without electricity, thanks to wind-up Gramophones. “If there’s enough power to drag a rusty nail around a piece of Bakelite,” he said, “there’s enough energy to run a radio.” So sure enough, he invented the wind-up radio. Cranking it by hand for two minutes produced enough power to make it work for 14 minutes. But nothing much happened with his prototype: radio companies didn’t want to manufacture the device. In 1994, the BBC featured the idea, and a financial backer stepped forward. That backing helped Baylis put two passions together: a company in Africa hired disabled people to make the wind-up radios. The “Freeplay” radio was a hit, and the technology was adapted to other devices, such as wind-up flashlights and cell phone chargers. Baylis then turned his fame into helping other inventors. “I want to make sure that when the money rolls in, he or she is not rolled out,” he said. “Nobody pays you for a good idea, but they might pay you for a piece of paper which says you own that idea.” One didn’t have to be an engineer to invent something, he said. “Inventors are ordinary folk like me, lateral thinkers who just happen to look at things differently and ask, ‘Why not?’” He formed Trevor Baylis Brands to help inventors, and protect them from those who would try to push them out and capitalize on their ideas without proper compensation. Baylis, who suffered from Crohn’s disease, died on March 5, at 80.

From This is True for 12 March 2018