Thursday Book: The future is clockwork

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The Independent Culture
THE MAN with the bomb strapped to his body stood at the factory gate. Perhaps he paced up and down in the January chill, summoning the nerve to bring the nature of his load to somebody's attention. He presumably did, for he was disarmed and imprisoned. Paul Barker was not a religious fanatic, nor a moral campaigner, nor a disgruntled former employee - just an inventor who had had his idea rejected.

Few inventors are driven to such desperation. But fewer become as famous as Trevor Baylis, inventor of the clockwork radio, guest boffin on The Big Breakfast, and best known resident of Eel Pie Island, on the Thames. His book reveals he has been an inventor only since 1982, with only the one success (but you only need one).

Childhood was difficult: scavenging shrapnel during the war, finding the corpse of a baby in the canal, sexually abused at Sunday School. He became emotionally detached, outwardly cocky, always wanting to be the centre of attention. He developed a competitive streak, expressed not only in swimming, at which he excels, but in enjoying watching others' inventions fail on TV. His book appears to be dedicated to the author's conquests - 21 of them, from Anthea to Wendy.

Baylis's first job was at a soil mechanics company, where he found a collection of oddballs who seem to personify the reasons for Britain's industrial decline. But he found inspiration in one of them. He took engineering at the local tech and liked it. With a different school experience, Baylis might have gone on to be able to call himself architect, engineer or designer. Without the right letters after his name, only at length did he become an "inventor".

This is something of a blessing for the story. I imagined Clock This might be an extended whinge on the reluctance of companies to take up his ideas. There is a little of this, but Baylis's early life compensates with a succession of readable japes. There are useful tips, such as how to get off scot free while driving a dodgy car carrying a dozen nurses. There is circus work and escapology. National Service failed to make a conformist of him. He never learned to button his lip for long enough to survive a job interview. But, amazingly, he found a job where he combined his passions for swimming and clowning with engineering: selling swimming pools in affluent society.

It was necessity, fittingly enough, that saw his metamorphosis into an inventor. He was getting too old for aquatic stunts and, on the death of his father, inherited his tools. His first rush of ideas led to Orange Aids, a set of tools for the disabled that proved unpatentable and led to his first bitter experience with bankers and lawyers.

Like most inventions, the clockwork radio was not a complete product of the imagination, but a transfer of existing technology, in this case from a clockwork gramophone. Baylis remarks that invention permits, and indeed rewards, the recycling of ideas "like swimming-pool water". The time must be right: the irony is that the low-tech clockwork radio could only be invented after the hi-tech transistor had reduced power requirements. Baylis's idea had another great advantage. He could picture a Third World market for it so obvious that anybody could see it.

This time, he found honest partners. The progress from mock-up to manufactured product shows that others must be involved - accountants, market researchers, a designer, a university engineering department. Yet, unless the inventor takes the utmost care, to get this help requires "disclosure" and risks losing all. There were lucky breaks with BBC publicity and Overseas Development Agency support (and unlucky ones too, with reject letters from many companies).

Baylis says little about the economics of manufacturing and sale. Yet these are an integral part of the radio's schizophrenic success. It is sold here as "a toy for the well-to-do", as Baylis admits, and given via charities to people in the Third World and to refugees. Recently, 47,000 radios were distributed to displaced Kosovars.

Baylis has seen the future, and it's clockwork. One idea intriguingly combines clockwork and pool disinfection technology to provide a human- powered means of sterilising the formula milk that mothers with HIV in Third World countries must feed their infants. But his main concern is to establish an academy of invention for people like Mr Barker. He believes it would need an initial grant equivalent to funding three operas but "should be self-financing after three years."

Baylis is currently looking at using the stretch in wire and rubber as a way of storing energy. Will it work? Even he says: "I have no idea."

The reviewer is working on books on the literature of science, and on science and nationalism, for Granta