Yes, this one's a wind-up all right

At last, both rich and poor can surf the airwaves. Meg Carter tunes in to the first clockwork radio

It could be the ultimate green statement on this year's Christmas list - or a critical communications tool in Third World countries. It needs neither batteries nor electricity mains supply. It is the world's first clockwork radio.

Yes, a wind-up radio. Operating on the same principle as a clockwork alarm clock, the BayGen Freeplay generates electricity. Unlike an alarm clock, however, it can efficiently store and distribute power constantly. Twenty seconds of winding will produce 40 minutes of listening time.

It is the brainchild of Trevor Baylis, a former underwater escapologist and part-time inventor. Concerned by TV reports on the spread of Aids in Africa, he set about tackling the problem of how governments and aid workers can disseminate life-saving health information without the help of mass media.

"Very few people have access to radio, either because they have no electricity or because batteries are expensive or unreliable," explains Chris Staines, chief executive of BayGen Power International, Freeplay's distributor. Freeplay will be sold to aid agencies who will distribute it free, he says.

Mr Staines, a former director of mergers and acquisitions at chartered accountants BDO Stoy Haward, approached Mr Baylis after seeing him appear briefly on Tomorrow's World. He developed the product with Mr Baylis and financial backing from the Overseas Development Administration. With the blessing of the South African President, Nelson Mandela, a new factory producing 20,000 radios a month will open in Cape Town next month.

"This revolutionary wind-up technology will prove invaluable," Mr Staines says, adding that it has numerous potential spin-offs - such as the wind- up torch, lamp, TV set and even Gameboy. For Mr Baylis, personal power- generating technology does not just have implications for the Third World. In fact, Freeplay goes on sale in the UK late next month and the launch of a clockwork torch is already scheduled for 1996.

"The Freeplay will initially be sold in the UK very much as an 'aid radio' - it is bulky and resistant to all extremes of weather," Mr Staines says. It will be available in Harrods and Dixons, priced at around pounds 40. A more refined, aesthetically pleasing model will be launched in the UK and throughout the world next year.

According to Chris Wood, managing director of brand specialist CLK, which is handling Freeplay's marketing, "We can see it catching on as a rich kid's gimmick, or for purely practical reasons - such as in the car or on camping expeditions."

Batteries are the biggest mercury pollutant on the planet, he adds. "There are many people who would prefer to get power from an alternative source, given the chance."

The story of the BayGen Freeplay features in 'QED' on BBC1 tonight at 10pm.

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