The Return of the Wonderful Wind-Up

Odd, come to think of it. We still use (or I do, anyway) the expression "It goes like clockwork" in a positive sense. Meaning, it goes really well. With definite reliability.

I suppose kids these days do encounter the occasional toy that winds up? Mostly, though, there is little doubt that battery power is as taken for granted by children as all the other inventions of the electronic revolution. They don't give it a thought - why would they? - when it comes to dolls crying and fluttering their eyelashes or dump trucks careering across the carpet in a collision course with the cat. They just work. All you have to do is press a button or something. Probably most of these children believe the cat's strangely primeval dream-snufflings are battery-operated too.

A news report today tells of a man who has invented a new kind of radio for those parts of the globe known as third-world countries. Everyone knows that radio remains a crucial means of communication to many people, but what has not been recognized sufficiently is that very often radios cannot be used because of the cost of new batteries. So Trevor Baylis, British inventor, has come up with what, surprisingly, is a "first" - a clockwork radio.

Mr. Baylis is undoubtedly of a generation that, in childhood, wound up its toy trains, racing cars, and even such metal toy figures as footballers, railway porters, or even the "changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace" - all of them motorized most satisfactorily by clockwork.

I wonder if he did not also, like me, have a childhood punctuated at daily intervals by the sound of his dad winding up the various clocks in the house? A happy, comfortably predictable ritual of sounds that seemed to occur after I had gone to bed and was just dozing off. Sounds that seemed as natural as birdsong at dawn.

Gramophones (as they were known) were also wind-up machines. Baylis will certainly appreciate fully the wonder of turning a key to power up a mechanism. He may well recall it as also being a kind of pleasurable minor skill: the at-first easy turning becoming tighter and tighter until it cannot be turned any more without endangering the springs; the sense of empowering something's movements by this simple manual process. But he will also know that clockwork has two great assets. It is free. And a child can do it.

The new clockwork transistor radio - a fascinating blend of yesterday and today, of nostalgia and modernity - shows, once more, that our new technologies do not of necessity make our old ones redundant. The radio is to go on the market in September, according to the London Times. The same article says that it "provides 40 minutes' listening from 20 seconds' winding." The report, ah, winds up by saying that Baylis and his business partner, Christopher Staines, have a "wealth" of follow-up ideas such as clockwork "calculators, torches, and portable telephones."

"Hold on a moment" - you can just imagine saying to someone, halfway through that international call - "my phone just needs winding up ... crrrrrk, crrrrk, crrrk, crrk, crk, ck.... Right. Excuse me. You were saying?"

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