Design: Bizarre, but it's no wind-up

  • @e_janedickson
On the anniversary of Diana's death, the inventor of the clockwork radio talks about some of the innovations his

original design has inspired, including a wind-up mine detector and an artificial leg.

There is a false image in this country of the inventor as some kind of eccentric," says Trevor Baylis, batting an impressive spider's web from the entrance of his workroom where a thousand household appliances have come to die. Cannibalised components are strewn inches deep on every available surface and it seems extraordinary that this mechanical carnage should have produced the most fated technological innovation of the decade. But here cradled on Baylis's lap, sleek and sparkly in its DayGlo "jelly" casing, the BayGen wind-up radio purrs and whirrs contentedly.

"Yup," says Baylis, picking shreds of pipe tobacco from an ochre-fringed moustache. "When you say the word `inventor' people see this weird eccentric bloke with a Viennese accent." Inching past the full-size heated swimming pool in the lobby of his house-cum-shed on Eel Pie Island, past the stuffed lizard and the photos of Baylis hugging Nelson Mandela and framed letters from Prince Charles - "they do a nice meal at the Palace" he says - Baylist leads the way through to a jetty where the car he has been building for 20 years - a fine four-fendered heap in the style of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - seems poised either for flight or a plunge into the Thames.

"And bow-ties," he adds. "We're supposed to be eccentric blokes with Viennese accents and bow-ties." As a matter of record then, let it be said that Baylis has no bow-tie and speaks impeccable Estuary English.

Since 1994, when he appeared with his prototype clockwork radio on BBC1's Tomorrow's World things have moved fast for Baylis. BayGen Power - the company which bought the licence to develop wind-up technology and in which he retains substantial shares - now manufacture the revolutionary Freeplay radios at a rate of 60,000 per month from its Cape Town factory. This year saw the launch of the clockwork torch and the company is now working in association with The Pentagon to develop personally-powered global positioning systems, two-way radios and land-mine detectors.

"I've already managed to raise a beep from a mate's land-mine detector using power from the wind-up radio," says Baylis, who in conjunction with another inventor, Professor Reg King of the Royal Military College, also is developing an interactive "talking-book" bomb disposal manual. Conscious of the fact that land mines are frequently laid in areas of low literacy, where conventional batteries can cost the equivalent of a family's monthly food budget, Baylis has harnessed the energy of his radio to operate a touch-pad computer which could talk - in the appropriate language or dialect - a relatively inexperienced bomb-disposal operative through the procedure for different land-mine models. Plans also are afoot for a clockwork water sterilisation unit. Once again using radio as a power source for simple electrolysis, sodium hypochlorite - the basis of household bleach - could be manufactured from salt and water. In regions where AIDS is now endemic, with mothers passing the virus to babies through their breast milk, the advantage of cheap sterile water to make up formula milk is incalculable.

"Who would have thought that off the back of a radio - this thing that churns out music and entertainment in our kitchen - we would be talking about sorting out world literacy and infant mortality?" Baylis says. "In four or five years we could have a staggering universe of clockwork devices."

The spiralling humanitarian applications of his invention is a source of terrific satisfaction to Baylis, who developed his prototype after watching a documentary about the difficulty of implementing AIDS-education programmes in countries with underdeveloped communications systems.

"I was sitting there watching this when I had a kind of dream of me sitting in the Sudan, like some old English colonel with a monocle and fly swat, listening to a raunchy number by Dame Nellie Melba on my wind-up gramophone. And I just thought, if you can get all that noise by dragging a nail round a piece of old Bakelite using a spring, maybe we could use a spring to drive a dynamo that could drive a radio."

Baylis would not, however, like to be thought of as a "do-gooder".

"It's not the cross of Jesus I'm holding before me, it's a soldering iron," he states. "I was sexually abused in Sunday school - this sanctimonious guy in a dog collar perpetrating the most foul acts on a five-year-old in the name of The Lord, The Father and The Holy Ghost; so as far as I'm concerned, the last Christian died on the cross."

This early trauma, Baylis believes, shaped the course of his career. "I've always been a show-off or a show-man, but that was just to make up for being made to feel inadequate as a child.

At 15, he was swimming for his country. Demobbed from the army, he found a job as a swimming-pool salesman, demonstrating the product by diving from a height of 10ft into three feet of water. Later, going by the debonair name of Rameses II, he joined a Berlin circus with a Houdini-style escapology act. On slow days, he would pep up his act by setting himself on fire. He cut his teeth as an inventor on aids for disabled colleagues.

"For all of us disability is only a banana skin away, and for a stunt player, there are lots of banana skins, so in a strange way stunt players and disabled people are kinfolk," says Baylis, whose recent projects in this field include the development of the Blatchford Limb, a revolutionary prosthetic leg which mimics the individual gait of the amputee. He also is gratified by the fact that BayGen's Cape Town factor is staffed in the main by disabled people: "The only problem we have is with the blind people on the production line. They work too fast."

In the early Eighties, with more than 100 products for the disabled - the Orange Aid range - to his credit, Baylis sold the licence to a city bank which lost no time in shouldering him out of the company. "It was all done with signatures" he says, as if explaining a particularly cunning stunt. "The money men can make you sign your life away." His relationship with BayGen is mutually respectful and secure, but Baylis admits that he still gets "a bit paranoid at times".

Inventors, he insists, have no real status in Britain and are at the mercy of Byzantine copyright and patenting structures designed to protect the corporate mass rather than the individual. To this end, he has detailed plans for the setting up of a Royal Academy of British Inventors.

"We've got royal academies of art and science, but there's no professional body for us blokes in the middle who actually create the wealth that is spent by the research boys in the science faculties and the artists who blow it all on dead sheep in formaldehyde."

Baylis's academy would shepherd inventors through the system right from the eureka moment through to the televised auction of their product. "It's nice to be on the telly," says Baylis, who currently features in a mobile phone commercial. It's good for the back-room boys of British industry to have their day in the sunshine." Tax breaks for inventors also feature heavily in the master plan.

"I could go and live in the Cayman Islands tomorrow. But what," he says, gesturing to his ramshackle kingdom on the Thames, "could be nicer than this? I've got everything I want, an indoor swimming pool, two delightful girlfriends..."

When it is suggested that two girlfriends might be surplus to most people's requirements, Baylis laughs richly: "Well I've got two arms and two legs" he reasons. "Let's not get hung up on numbers. Besides," he cautions, with a strut that recalls the heyday of Rameses II, "convention, darling, is the enemy of progress."