British inventor with a social conscience

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

While perhaps not as gadget-crazy as Americans, the British have a distinguished tradition of invention. Father and son duo George and Robert Stephenson revolutionized transportation in the 1800s with their work on the steam locomotive. In the 20th century, John Logie Baird (a Scot), brought us television. More recently, James Dyson developed the bagless vacuum.

Then there is Trevor Baylis, whose ideas blend the commercial with the philanthropic. The self-taught Londoner's top creation to date is his clockwork radio in 1994. Freeplay Energy Group, the South African company that markets the devices, saw $18.5 million in sales for 1998, and expects them to reach $50 million this year.

Sitting on the veranda of the house he built 30 years ago on Eel Pie Island in the river Thames, Mr. Baylis recalls, "The thing which inspired me to make it was the spread of AIDS in Africa.

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"A program on television said that the only way they could stop this ... was with the power of radio. But there was the problem: very little electricity in Africa. The only option was to use batteries, which to them were horrendously expensive - and anyway, where do you get batteries in most of these places?"

That night, Baylis says he had a dream in which he was listening to opera diva Nellie Melba "on my wind-up gramophone in the jungle.

"I then went to my shed at the back of the house where I found an old dynamo, attached it to a hand brace, connected two wires to a cheap transistor radio. And then, by holding the dynamo in one hand and rotating the handle of the hand brace, I got my first piece of sound."

These days, Baylis is working on another idea that combines altruism and commercial self-interest: harnessing the energy generated by walking to power cellular phones or palmtop computers.

His answer is a specially designed shoe containing a tiny rechargeable battery.

The rugged, very fit Baylis plans to put his new invention to the test in June. "I'm going to Namibia, walking 100 kilometers [62 miles] across the desert in order to raise money for mines awareness." (He is also working on a wind-up land-mine detector.) "We're trying to eliminate antipersonnel mines in places like Angola. The way we intend to do it is to raise the money and then train the local folk to be able to deal with them.

"I decided I wanted a pair of shoes with a minigenerator on my feet in the desert, so that I can make a phone call to anywhere in the world."

As usual, the idea came to Baylis in his sleep. He awoke with the basic principle worked out, then called in some expert help from an innovation technology firm.

Even without a prototype to show potential investors, Baylis claims there is strong interest among shoe, cellphone, and palmtop computer manufacturers in Britain and the US. Baylis says he is engaged in confidential talks, but declines to name names.

Hugh Crodie, marketing director for Clarks, a British shoe firm, says, "The whole concept is very exciting. The use of innovation and technology would definitely suit our company." And a spokesman for mobile-phone manufacturer Nokia says, "I am amazed by it. If it works it just sounds great."

The child of working-class parents, Baylis was labeled backward by his teachers because he was a slow reader, and left school at the minimum legal age of 15.

His father persuaded him to take a low-paid traineeship in a soil-mechanics laboratory in Southall, near London, so he could study part time at a local technical college. This solid grounding in civil and mechanical engineering was invaluable in his early inventions - some 200 devices to aid the disabled. Most attach everyday items such as cameras, umbrellas, trays, and flashlights to wheelchairs or beds.

Along the way, Baylis's colorful career also included stints as an Army physical-training instructor, a professional swimmer, a movie stuntman, and an underwater escape artist with a Berlin circus.

His experiences developing the clockwork radio also turned Baylis into a campaigner on behalf of the independent inventor. "I went round for three years to every British company I could find and they all turned me down," he says.

"Then some backers came in from South Africa. My partners made me an offer for my intellectual property, gave me a portion of the money, and I'm still waiting for the balance.... I'm not pleading poverty. I have a super life. But history tells us that whenever the money rolls in, the inventor is always rolled out."

His solution was to found The British Academy of Invention last year with a small group of fellow pioneers. Its aim is to provide expert legal and commercial advice to inventors.

"You're not taught about intellectual property at school," he says. "There should be a place where inventors can go secure in the knowledge that they will not be ripped off."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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