Obituary: Trevor Baylis
Circus performer turned inventor whose wind-up radio brought information to Africa's rural poor
Trevor Baylis, who died last Monday aged 80, was the inspired creator of the "clockwork radio"; his simple yet effective design won him recognition as one of Britain's foremost inventors.
Baylis got the idea for the wind-up radio in the early 1990s after seeing a television report on the spread of Aids in Africa, which also showed how basic radio communication was an impossibility for many rural Africans.
"My only motivation," he said in 1997, "was the pure mechanical challenge of getting a clockwork radio to work." From his garden shed on Eel Pie Island, Twickenham, he soon developed an elementary concept and built his Freeplay Radio, powered by a spring energy dynamo, an idea inspired by the old-fashioned wind-up gramophone. (Later versions stored the energy in rechargeable batteries.) But Baylis found it difficult to get commercial backing, or even to persuade companies to pay attention, something which only fuelled his determination.
Philips, Marconi and Richard Branson's Virgin all turned him down, and Baylis was laughed out of an office in Glasgow, after travelling for five hours to be told that no one would meet him. Eventually, in 1994, an appearance on the BBC's Tomorrow's World programme gave his radio the springboard it needed.
It was instantly recognised as a winner by Christopher Staines, an accountant, and Rory Stear, a South African entrepreneur. They took the design to South Africa, where it was manufactured by Baylis's newly formed company Baygen in factories staffed as much as possible by disabled workers. When he was first taken to see the operation, he was overcome with emotion and wept.
Like many of Baylis's inventions, the Freeplay Radio had a humanitarian dimension, as it helped the rural poor to have access to education and information. Baylis also reckoned to have developed some 200 products for use by the disabled - he called them the Orange Aid range. In 1999 he sought a wider market and co-founded the Electric Shoe Company and the Personal Power Company, making gadgets that powered mobile telephone batteries through walking.
The only child of a quality inspector in a rubber factory, Trevor Graham Baylis was born at Hendon, northwest London, on May 13, 1937, and grew up at Southall in west London. He had a difficult childhood: repeated sexual abuse at the hands of a curate when he was six made him virulently anti-religious.
After failing the 11-plus, "quite miserably I think, because I could hardly write my name", he attended Dormers Wells secondary modern school, Southall. Although rated difficult and pig-headed by his teachers, Baylis was no duffer: he represented Great Britain at swimming at the age of 15, and throughout his teenage years a passion for Meccano sets stimulated an aptitude for inventing and technology, which he later developed by taking day release courses in radio while working as a sewer mechanic. He is said to have once driven friends into town in a car fuelled by whisky and turps; aged 14 he built his first diesel engine.
After completing his National Service as a PT instructor, he became a swimming pool salesman before going into stunt diving and underwater escapology. By the 1960s he was making a reasonable living performing with a German circus.
He turned to inventing in 1982 as the result of a wager with a friend. "I bet a mate £20 that I could invent an aid for the disabled in less than half an hour," he recalled. "I lost. It took me 35 minutes."
Among his many labour-saving devices for the disabled were a one-handed tin opener and foot-operated scissors. As a former stuntman, Baylis believed that paralysis was merely "a banana skin away", and argued that we should do all that we could to ease the lives of others.
He became a prominent campaigner for the establishment of an academy of inventors to provide advice and protect them from "spivs, crooks and vulture capitalists". Such a body, he argued, would ensure that more inventions would see the light of day.
He also believed that inventors should be given help with the business side of their work and he established the Trevor Baylis Foundation, lobbying politicians to gain support for his cause while making an extra living as an after-dinner speaker. Later he lent his name to Trevor Baylis Brands, which supports inventors.
In the cluttered garden shed where he produced many of his gadgets, Baylis gave the appearance of an eccentric boffin, but his success sprang from an infallible self-belief and an unflagging enthusiasm for creativity in science.
A self-built home on Eel Pie Island, shambolically chaotic but with its own indoor swimming pool, testified to his design and construction talents. Spurning married life in favour of independence, he lived there alone for many years with his dog Monty.
In 1996, Baylis's Freeplay Radio received the BBC Best Design Award. In 1999 he was named Pipe Smoker of the Year. His autobiography Clock This appeared in 1999.