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Trevor Baylis: 'Why invent, if the idea will be nicked?'

The man who created the wind-up radio and lives with 1,000 used domestic appliances, is on a mission – to put patent thieves behind bars

On Eel Pie Island, to the south-west of London in the River Thames, a 75-year-old inventor scurries around the workshop of the house he built four decades ago, showing off an electric shoe, drawers made out of an Iceland supermarket's ready meal trays, and a self-weighing briefcase.

On the walls hang photos of this eccentric with Nelson Mandela and Rolf Harris. There are also quite a few pictures of his "lady friend" of 40 years and, above his bed, the "gorgeous" Audrey Hepburn.

Trevor Baylis, who invented the wind-up radio a little more than 20 years ago, is a small bundle of entertaining energy, but today he is worried about the reputation of his profession and a legal system that he believes deters people from coming up with great new products.

"I'm very anxious about inventors. We're usually looked at in a curious way, like who the bloody hell does he or she think he or she is, saying that they invent things?" he chuckles. "We're quite normal people. I want UK plc to stand behind the British inventor. Intellectual property is the most valuable asset the nation has."

While Baylis is far from normal, hoarding "a graveyard of 1,000 domestic appliances" and claiming to have smoked a pipe 1.95 million times over 60 years, he remains in that most famous rank of living British inventors, alongside the likes of Sir James Dyson and Sir Clive Sinclair.

And what has exercised the brain of this former stuntman and underwater escape artiste for the past three-and-a-half years is inventors' intellectual property and how easily their ideas can be stolen by the multinationals. In 2009, he wrote to then-business secretary Lord Mandelson demanding the Government made intellectual property theft a criminal, rather than civil, offence.

"He didn't listen," Baylis huffs, but maybe Mandelson's successor – and Eel Pie Island's MP – Vince Cable will. "He is a local lad, so you think he'd be all over me about this. I've tried to contact him many, many times. It's a bit like trying to knock through an iron door. If we had someone like Vincent Cable or the CBI behind us this could work."

At the time of the letter Cable was, in fact, publicly supportive. He said: "If people steal ideas from creative artists, you can go to prison. But patent theft is just part of life."

Soon after, figures started emerging that backed Baylis's view. In the cyber sphere alone, government data showed that intellectual property theft cost UK businesses at least £9.2bn, but many of these companies would be able to fight for their rights due to strong balance sheets. The lone inventor will not have the finances to hire the lawyers and consultants needed to identify and then take to court those who have stolen their work.

"How do you find people who copied an idea if they're in the middle of China or Timbuktu?" Baylis seethes. "How do you sue them? What are the costs? In other words, why invent if the idea's just going to get nicked?"

Baylis himself is no businessman. As one friend puts it: "That's why Dyson is so unique, being able to both invent and do business". Baylis regularly talks about "not being interested in money", even if he does complain that he made no money out of his human-powered radio. Most of his income is from a lucrative after-dinner speaking career – and, boy, can he talk.

"What's the point being the richest man in the graveyard?" says Baylis, who is childless due to "firing blanks", a result of a bout of German measles in his youth. "I've still got a mortgage on this property and that's disgusting when you think about it."

That inventors struggle to make vast riches is demonstrated by a list he wields of his predecessors' financial fates from the 13th to 20th centuries (see panel right). That said, he might have made his own life a little bit more financially comfortable had he accepted an £80,000 offer on his beloved E-Type Jaguar, which cost him only £22,000.

In the business world he has lent his name to Trevor Baylis Brands, which attempts to help inventors commercialise their ideas and hooks them up with patent lawyers. The fee is £299, although out of 8,000 products only around 50, such as an air dryer that reduces the time it takes to get rid of post-flood damp, have actually made it to market.

Baylis has suffered similar frustrations, having invented more than 300 products for the disabled that have never been sold. Even his radio was initially rejected, with one 1992-dated knock-back from The Design Council even framed for every visitor to see.

His big plan for protecting inventors is for high-street banks or similar institutions to set up "safe rooms" that are filmed by CCTV. Everyone in that room would be recorded as they signed a confidentiality agreement and inventors could be helped to develop their creation without the fear of being spied on or overheard by idea filchers.

He thinks that a good name for these safe havens would be "Baylis break-out rooms" which would be "a hell of a legacy". He's clearly a shameless self-promoter, but he gets away with what he admits is an ego through good humour.

Brandishing a copy of his 262-page autobiography, Clock This, which ends with the line "May all your dreams be patentable", he laughs: "This would have been twice the size if the publisher had kept the swearing in."

North London-born, Baylis also recalls getting into a few scrapes as he shouted after one of his old dogs, Rommel, in the famously Jewish area of Golders Green. His latest mutt, a golden labrador called Ike, after President Dwight Eisenhower, snores away having tired himself out chewing a shoe.

As well as using the Second World War as inspiration for dog names, Baylis cites it as a reason why society can ill-afford to ignore inventors. Sir Frank Whittle came up with the turbojet engine in the 1930s, yet despite producing a prototype before the outbreak of war his ideas were largely ignored by government.

Had Whittle's ideas been taken up much earlier, argues Baylis, then the RAF would have fought with aircraft far superior to the Spitfire and the war would have been all over very quickly as "World War One-and-a-Half".

Whether or not that claim stacks up to historical scrutiny is questionable, but the argument is symptomatic of his crusade to transform the image of the mad inventor, even if he snugly fits that stereotype himself.

He argues that inventing should be made part of the school curriculum, with prizes handed out to pupils who create something that helps the disabled, and has even devised an entire graduate and post-graduate honours system that would not involve attending university. "You could have a Bachelor of Invention at the stage you're granted a patent, and become a Doctor if you take an invention to market. I believe that achievement is more important than qualification."

As he prepares to take Ike for a walk, Baylis grabs a contraption that he uses to pick up litter on the island, which in the Sixties played host to The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and The Who at gigs in the Eel Pie Hotel. Today's great Eel Pie entertainer says: "We look after each other here. We're like a family."

He says Cable lives just a quick walk from the other side of the footbridge that links the island to Twickenham. The Business Secretary can probably already hear the sound of his neighbour once more banging at his door.

Big ideas, low earners

Trevor Baylis says he has made next to no money directly from his devices and has called for companies to pay inventors a 5 per cent royalty. However, he is not the first to find that great inventions do not necessarily lead to great rewards.

Roger Bacon (1214-1294)

As a Franciscan friar, the inventor of the magnifying glass was hardly ever going to be rich, but Bacon found himself jailed during the 1270s for his "suspect novelties". Bacon's scientific work was treated with suspicion and even considered sorcery by some.

Henry Cort (1740-1800)

The Lancastrian discovered the puddling process to turn pig iron into wrought iron. As a result, iron production increased 400 per cent over the next 20 years but Cort lost his patent and was bankrupted when it was found that his business partner had funded the project with stolen money.

Sir George Cayley (1773-1857)

In 1853, the 79-year-old's dream of achieving human flight was realised, when John Appleby travelled 200 yards in Cayley's flimsy glider. However, the pioneering work of the "Father of Aviation" was to be overshadowed by the American Wright brothers.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859)

Of all his triumphs, perhaps the most famous is how Brunel, left, managed to come up with a design for the Clifton suspension bridge that soars above the Avon Gorge. Brunel's early death is thought to have been caused by overwork and stress.

Sir Frank Whittle (1907-1996)

Now famous as the creator of the jet engine, Whittle's ideas were initially turned down by the Air Ministry so he had to patent them himself. However, he handed over his invention to rivals free of charge and was unable to match these tough industrialists.