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It may be a wind up - but it's no joke!

Trevor Baylis and his Clockwork Radio

by David Wardell

Now and again, an invention comes along which makes you slap your forehead and utter the immortal words “Now why didn’t I think of that!?”  In the case of Trevor Baylis and his Clockwork Radio, the inventor himself is astonished for the same reason.  When he first came up with the idea he was sure that somebody would have beaten him to it.  Happily this was not the case and now Trevor has become a public figure – the latest in a long line of distinguished British inventors.  An overnight success.


Of course, the apparent overnight success is an illusion.  When it comes to inventions, every inventor will tell of the long hard struggle to take a simple idea from a concept to a finished product…


In Trevor’s case, the project began back in late 1991 when he was watching a news broadcast on the TV.  The programme was highlighting some of the problems faced in the third-world – not least of which was the inability to disseminate information to remote areas which did not have any electricity supply.  This simple fact gave Trevor the germ of an idea.  He knew that if you mechanically run an electric motor backwards it would produce a current and, armed with this knowledge, Trevor began experimenting.  In his workshop – which is the classic inventors den –he coupled together a hand-drill to a motor and connected wires to a small radio.  On turning the handle of the drill, the radio worked.  The theory was proven.

Having convinced himself that the idea would work, Trevor set about the prototyping process.  This is a crucial step for any inventor.  For the radio to be successful it had to have a method of storing and delivering energy.  The obvious solution was a clockwork motor which works by using a stressed steel spring which is wound on to a torque drum by using a key.  As the torque drum slowly unwinds it turns a generator, via a gearbox, and the voltage is regulated by a diode.  The system worked well and Trevor is still proud to show off his early prototypes.  The next step was to protect his idea and a patent was filed.  Realising that this clockwork generator could have applications with all manner of small electrical appliances, the patent application is entitled ‘Electrical Generators’ and not, as one would expect, ‘Clockwork Radios’.


Armed with his prototypes and patent protection, Trevor was now prepared to take on the world.  Unfortunately he ran up against a classic problem – rejection – and rejection in a big way.  Trevor has a thick stack of letters all explaining why the concept was ‘not right’ and ‘unsuitable for development’.  All of the obvious potential commercial partners who would be able to develop the project, including the radio manufacturers, flatly turned him down.  A respected engineer advised Trevor that the idea would never work as he would need a clockwork motor weighing about 1.5cwt (circa 75 kilos) which would only provide about four minutes of playing time.  So much for experts!


Fortunately, Trevor is a man with indomitable spirit and he knew the experts were wrong – a lesser man would have taken the proffered advice and given up on the whole project.  Trevor sees himself as a ‘horny-handed artisan’ who can hold his own when up against the ‘suits’.  He has something of an unusual background having been a champion swimmer in his youth, a film stunt-man, and in the early 1970’s an escapologist.  He worked for a German circus and went under the name of Rameses II – his main trick was to escape from a submerged sarcophagus after being bound and shackled.  These days, his ‘day-job’ is the supply and installation of swimming pools.  It is probable that his eclectic background and ‘can do’ attitude have made him resilient to his detractors.  Although he does admit that he suffers from massive attacks of inflated ego – Trevor puts this down to the problem faced by most inventors, namely having to bottle-up your ideas and keep things secret.

The next step to promote his idea was, for Trevor, a bold one.  He took the decision to ‘go public’ in the hope that somebody would take interest in his idea.  On the 15th April 1994, Trevor and his radio were featured on BBC1’s Tomorrow’s World programme.  Quite by chance, the programme was seen by Christopher Staines, an accountant and businessman with experience in acquisitions and mergers.  Chris could immediately see the possibilities and consequently met with Trevor to discuss a possible partnership.


This meeting set in place a chain of events which would ultimately lead to full production and a factory in South Africa.  It was obvious to Chris that Trevor had taken his idea as far as he could – Trevor was an inventor, not a businessman.  Chris was able to offer credibility to the idea, credibility which had so far proved to be elusive and Trevor had found the person who is often the most important factor in the commercialisation process – a product champion.


Another important point in Chris’s favour was his close connections with South Africa.  The Radio had originally been conceived for the African market so Chris contacted one of his colleagues, Rory Stear, who was also soon convinced of the importance and commercial viability of the project.  Africa has a population of some 600 million people and radio is recognised as one of the most popular and accessible ways of spreading information.  In some areas, in the midst of terrible human tragedies, it has been known for people to barter food in exchange for radio batteries.  Rory was aware of all this and so he began to investigate and promote the idea in his native land.


Once again, it was the media which now played an important part.  While driving in his car, Hylton Appelbaum, of the Liberty Life Group, heard an interview on a Johannesburg radio station in which Trevor was describing his invention.  The Liberty Life Group, in South Africa, invests money into worthy projects – especially when they involve the community and disabled people.  Hylton realised that not only would production of the radio be great for the community but could also employ disabled people in the manufacturing process.  He discussed the project with Dr William Rowland – President of the Disabled People of South Africa – to see if there was a way forward by combining the resources of these two organisations.  As a result of these meetings, and a trip to England to meet Trevor, Liberty Life put up £750,000 to develop the project to production stage.  The Disabled People of South Africa also went into partnership with the fledgling company.


Now that the money and the commercial partners were in place, the prototype radio had to be developed to a production model.  Fortunately, following market research with the Africans, it was concluded that the radio had to be big, heavy and loud.  This was something of a relief as miniaturisation would have created many problems.  By increasing the size of the spring and simplifying the gearbox a workable product emerged which would satisfy consumer requirements and provide a reasonable playing time between winds of the key.  With hindsight, this all sounds simple but, at the time, there were grave doubts as to whether the technical problems could be overcome and a viable product would ever appear.


Meanwhile, in South Africa, production premises were set up which employed a number of able bodied and disabled people.  Eventually, Trevor got the chance to visit the factory and see the final product.  The visit was chronicled by the BBC’s Q.E.D. documentary series and anyone who saw this programme could not fail to have been moved by Trevor’s emotional response when he first went to the factory – the realisation of a dream come true.  Typically, if you now challenge Trevor about his reaction he will shuffle his feet and murmur that he acted like a ‘big girl’s blouse’.  The highlight of this visit was a trip to meet President Nelson Mandela who gave his blessing to the project.  Not only was the President impressed with the invention but he was also pleased with the fact that it was being developed in his own country and utilising disabled people.


The story is so full of ‘feel-good’ factor that it sounds almost untrue – they say that truth is stranger than fiction and this story covers an extraordinary range of coincidences.  The Clockwork Radio was not Trevor’s first invention and many of his previous efforts had been created to solve the problems of disabled people.  It is ironic that Trevor could inadvertently bring together, in one project, many strands of his inventive life.


So, what now?  The Radio was commercially launched in November of this year (1995).  In one of those strange twists, following the media coverage Trevor has enjoyed, the Radio has become an object of desire in the first-world.  All of a sudden, everyone wants to own a Clockwork Radio.  This is good news as it means that the money made here can be utilised to subsidise the price of the Radio to the markets for which it was originally intended.  Another source of great pleasure to Trevor is the satisfaction that many of those companies who originally said the Radio would never work are now beating a path to his door.  And what of the distinguished engineer who could ‘prove’ that it wouldn’t work?  Well, his letter is framed and displayed on Trevor’s wall and photocopies have been sent to all of Trevor’s friends and colleagues – to be displayed on the wall of the toilet!

Trevor's proud day with President Nelson Mandela.

Above, L-R, the Baygen team: Rory Stear, Trevor, Barney Beresford-West (M.D. Baygen Europe) and Christopher Staines.

Editors note: This article first appeared in the Winter 1995 edition of Inventors World Magazine and is unchanged from the original text.

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