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Making inventions run like clockwork

'I started fiddling with a small motor. I ran two wires from it into the back of the radio and discovered that if the motor was run in reverse, it generated power.'

WISE-CRACKING AND gesticulating wildly, the man behind the clockwork radio lived up to the eccentric image of inventors when he gave a lecture to the ICE last week.

But he showed that there is nothing mad about his brainchild. Half a million of Trevor Bayliss's clockwork radios have just been ordered by the United Nations, which recognises the need for a sustainable information source for people in the developing world.

At the Appropriate Development Panel lecture, Bayliss spoke proudly of his invention, from germination to realisation, and the hundreds coming off the production line of his BAYGEN factory in South Africa,.

'In 1993 I was watching a programme about the spread of AIDS in Africa. It was said that people needed radio to get vital information about health and development. In most of Africa there is no electricity, and batteries are horrendously expensive. People barter rice to get hold of batteries.

'I went into my shed and started fiddling with a small motor. I ran two wires from it into the back of the radio and discovered that if the motor was run in reverse, it generated power.'

Bayliss then used a clock spring and winder to keep the dynamo turning, and created a sustainable power source for the radio. 'The quality is excellent for a mono radio, and 25 seconds of winding creates an hour of reception,' he said.

Having had his Eureka, Bayliss embarked on what turned out to be a fruitless six months trying to drum up interest from British companies. 'Some of the letters were really pompous and humiliating. One said that my spring engine design would have to be 40 pounds in weight, and would then only work for 10 to 15 minutes.'

Salvation finally came from the BBC. 'Someone from the World Service heard about my idea and arranged for me to go on Tomorrow's World. So many people phoned me up and said 'Well done Trev'. It was such a relief to finally get a positive reaction.'

Businessman Chris Staines was among many enthralled viewers that night and, believing he could 'help the guy', got on the phone and made him an offer he could not refuse.

'I've been ripped off by the corporate boys in the past, but Chris was different because he offered to work for me, rather than the other way round, and the agreement was that he would only profit if I was successful.'

Together they set up a company called BAYGEN in South Africa, where Staines had contacts. Within a year their factory was up and running. A donation of £0.75M from an individual backer, and £145,000 from Linda Chalker's Overseas Development department, helped BAYGEN into mass production of the 25 dollar radio in South Africa.

BAYGEN is now branching out to develop clockwork laptop computers, torches and power-operated water purifiers, which will ensure safe powdered milk for children. 'Altogether, we are looking into 150 new products,' said Bayliss.

His latest idea is a clockwork powered talking book which is aimed at tackling illiteracy. Words are spoken when a pen attached to the book touches the word or picture. By touching letters with the pen, children can also spell out words and be told by the book if they are right. 'The book could also be used to convey simple engineering solutions, or information on anti-personnel mines. The possibilities are endless,' said Bayliss.

The OBE-winning inventor, who has just returned from a major lecture tour in Africa organised by the British Council, didn't pass up the chance to describe the lonely life of an inventor.

'The trouble with being an inventor is that you can't discuss your idea with anyone else before it's fully developed. You end up talking to yourself, and because you have to agree with yourself to have any chance of success, your ego gets bigger and bigger. Then there are people's expectations. When I say I'm an inventor, people expect me to have a Viennese accent, broken glasses, a bow tie that squirts water, long hair and an anorak,' he says. Bayliss has none of these, but has swum for Great Britain, been a stuntman and once worked for the Berlin Circus.

On a serious note, he laments the lack of support for British inventors. 'We British are amazing inventors. It was published in Hansard in 1996 that 57% of the world's greatest inventors come from our shores. £165bn a year is lost through our inventions going overseas.'

Bayliss has a long list of inventors who died disillusioned from the lack of prosperity generated by their ground-breaking ideas. The list includes the ICE's own Isambard Kingdom Brunel who died aged 43, 'stressed, overworked, with a lack of finance and a profound sense of pessimism'.

Bayliss waxed lyrical about Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine and the person Bayliss most wanted to have a 'one-to-one' with in a recent television commercial for mobile phones. 'Whittle was a genius, and if the Government had listened to him the Luftwaffe would never have had a look in during the Second World War. After his paper was published, the US developed the Merlin engine before us, and that's why I'm so suspicious of government.'

He also paid some respects to the inventor of the ZX computer, Sir Clive Sinclair, and defended him against the ridicule he received after the C5 electric car. 'His way forward for transport wasn't a great success, but I once heard Sir Clive say: 'When you get on to a ski slope, you are entitled to fall off a few times'. I thought, 'Well done Clive', many people do not have the guts to get on the slope.'

Rounding off passionately, Bayliss called for a new academy of inventors. 'Inventors need a place where they can go and discuss ideas. The academy would act as a filtering mechanism, and those whose inventions were successful would be made fellows and get tax breaks.'

The ADP was delighted at the success of the lecture which was arranged after panel member Nicole Towler, of the British Council, alerted the panel that the inventor was available. Bayliss waived his fee.

His lecture inspired the watching ICE director of public affairs Ian Moore to comment: 'We are looking into having a programme about the Telford Challenge on the BBC World Service, and the clockwork radio would be a wonderful tool to spread engineering best practice across the developing world.'

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