Profile: Trevor Baylis OBE

Since his invention of the revolutionary wind-up radio — and the ensuing rise to celebrity status — Trevor Baylis OBE has been keeping busy. But who is he? And exactly what is this unusual character up to?

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By  Kate Concannon Published  March 26, 2002

Meet Trevor Baylis|~||~||~|In 1991, Trevor Baylis watched a documentary about AIDS in Africa. Experts explained that the only way to halt the rampant spread of the virus was through radio education. Problem: for many potential victims, electricity is not a reality and the cost of a set of batteries is more than monthly wages. Profoundly affected, renaissance man Baylis set to the task of making a difference. Result: the wind up radio — a technology that has revolutionised information access in the developing world — and a king of charisma was launched from the relative obscurity of the Ordinary Guy (well, sort of…)

You have a most extraordinary resume. Give us a run down of how you came to be where you are today, and the memorable stops on the way.
Growing up during the war, when every night was fireworks night, my education was somewhat disrupted, but by the time I was 15 I was swimming for Great Britain. After I completed my national service, I took a job with a swimming pool company as a technical sales representative. I was at an exhibition for work one day, and, being a show man, dived into the pool to splash and tumble about. People swarmed around to look, including a man named Roberto Germaines, who subsequently offered me a job as a stuntsman. That led me, in 1970, to the Berlin Circus, where I performed as an underwater escape artist. (With this one act I made enough money to buy my little house on Eel Pie Island and set up my company, Shotline Steel Swimming Pools, which I still have today.) But stuntmen get injured, and I had mates who ended up disabled. This prompted me to invent a range of gadgets for the disabled, call Orange Aids. With the success of my wind up radio, doors opened all around me — why, I was with Clinton last week! I now travel the world with the British council and work on my own projects.

When you entered into business with South African get-up Freeplay to have your wind up radios produced and distributed in Africa, you were enthusiastic and optimistic about where your hard work was going. What went wrong?
As it turned out, Freeplay’s motivations were entirely different to my own. Initially, the strategy was great and I trusted their purpose. We were providing employment for a lot of disabled South Africans, which meant that the project contributed to the local economy as well as helped to educate the people of Africa. But greed corrupts, and that’s what it came down to. Freeplay shut down operations in South Africa, leaving people without jobs, to have the radios manufactured more cheaply in China. I am profoundly disappointed, and the only contact I have with Freeplay now is through its lawyers, when they call me.

Gadgets to aid the disabled; wind-up radios for the isolated and poor; vice president of Techknowledgy; and now founder of a guild of sorts for inventors to guard them from the “commercial vultures”. Why are you such a good guy?
I’ve got a bloody good life, for which I’m very grateful, and, what’s more, my parents taught me many things, one of which was the old Victorian word, decency. I’m not a wave my hands around kinda guy, nor am I a pious fellow — quite the opposite really. But I wish no one the trouble I’ve endured to get my product in motion. So, now I’m in a position to help other inventors, that’s exactly what I’m trying for. I want an all ethical arrangement for all parties.

||**||Beyond the now|~||~||~|What else have you got up your sleeve? What’s on the agenda?
Well, aside from getting the piezoelectric shoe [a charger powered by walking energy] up and running, I have a couple of other gags, as I call them, at the back of my mind — but nothing I can talk about just yet! My other focus for the moment is changing the geeky, fruitcake image of inventors and also to promote women in science, engineering and invention.

You won Pipe Smoker of the Year in 1999. Tell us your smoking history and describe the trophy with which you were presented.
Yes, I was very proud to be chosen as Pipe Smoker of the Year. Every time I light my pipe get a little piece of pleasure. If you calculate that I’ve been smoking for 49 years, going through one box of Swan Vesta matches (on average 85 matches per box) per day, everyday, that’s a lot of pleasure. [1,520,225 pleasureful moments, to be exact.] Yeah, I’ve got a great life…I smoke Condore, a black Irish tobacco. The trophy I was awarded is actually one of my clock work radios, but it’s been modified such that the aerial comes out and it works as a pipe.

What do you see we have to direct the future of the human experience?
Don't get me wrong, I'm no raving greenie, but we will have to conserve. The way to do this is give advantages to those who are embracing conservation-conscious behaviour — a transit lane approach. Invention can provide cost effective energy returns, so it should also be pursued. What really has to change though is the mercenary nature of the world: the particular example I give is drug patents, which prevent AIDS treatment reaching the very people afflicted. Certain knowledge must be given to science, and the value of human life is paramount. There’s no sense in money making schemes that denigrate this, and the acquisition of wealth for its own sake is vulgar. What will you be remembered for? There are no pockets in a shroud.

Have you travelled in the Middle East?
With the British Council I have travelled to give speeches in Jordan, Bahrain and Palestine, and I was supposed to be in Dubai very shortly — but that event was cancelled. I was very disappointed because I have an ‘old mate’ there: Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum. Many years ago, I used to clean his pool in the UK! He seems a very humane and ethical man. The type I’d love to have support my foundation.

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