Radio Active: Trevor Baylis Interview

Trevor Baylis been termed the godfather of British inventors living today, responsible for genuine social change, alongside commercially lucrative product design. Mark Southern visited the visionary behind the wind-up radio at his Surrey workshop to discover the world according to Trev.

As first published in MoneyMaker Magazine, 2013.

‘Dr Trevor Graham Baylis OBE’ may the name on the letters through his postbox, but to the rest of the world, including a certain Nelson Mandela, ten of those syllables are redundant. For ‘Trev’, as he’s been known for his seventy-five remarkable years, is as far removed from pomp and ceremony as any inventor you’ll ever meet.

Baylis is a contradictory conundrum in the flesh, at the same time utterly unassuming, whilst eternally charismatic and possessing a real presence. His keen eyes flicker incessantly, his proud moustache frames his relaxed chatty mouth, and his well groomed slick of white hair reveals a man who still stays fit, and who understands the importance of being active in every sense.

However, it’s the affixes around his given name that give the real clues about the global importance of the energetic entrepreneur from Eel Pie Island, Twickenham. The prefix sits at the front to reflect the thirteen honorary degrees, including multiple doctorates and Masters, bestowed upon him for his exceptional contribution to British inventing. But it’s the suffix that really stands out, presented to him by Princess Anne, for his ingenuity in making a real difference in the fight against the spread of HIV across Africa. Not bad for a working class kid from London, with minimal education.

For Baylis has never had a career, so to speak, but has instead made his life his own from a very early age. And what a life. After very nearly qualifying for the GB swim team at the 1956 Olympics, Baylis spent time in the Army, before becoming a stunt swimmer and underwater escape artiste in a Berlin circus.

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It was during this time that tragedy cruelly struck, and changed his life forever. His lover was an Austrian aerial ballet performer, considered the most beautiful star of European circus. Trev the intrepid escapologist was smitten with the passionate affair, but fate intervened and, during one of her daring high-rise routines, she fell from her rope, with the safety net not able to save her life.

Baylis was inconsolable, but, in a move which demonstrates his positive attitude to life, chose not to moan, but to consider what life would have been like for his sweetheart if she had survived with severe disability. Recognising that the solutions of the time were unsubstantial and ineffective, Baylis set up his Orange Aids company, and began combining the natural brightness of his mind with the practical skills his father had taught him to design smart tools that could assist people with disabilities to live a better quality of life.

It was after building a successful inventing business that Baylis began the next phase of his life, which culminated in his worldwide celebrity, and eventual invites to both Mandela’s and the Queen’s houses.

In the early 1990’s the inventor was watching a documentary about the seemingly unstoppable spread of HIV around the African continent, which could be severely helped if the education of the locals could be increased by wide-spread use of simple radios. However, batteries, not to mention electricity, were at a real premium in many African regions, and powering radios seemed a forlorn hope.

Baylis dashed out to his workshop (AKA his “graveyard of a thousand appliances”), and within minutes had worked out a way this could be achieved cheaply and effectively. In his words, “I thought of the old fashioned gramophone. If you can get all that noise by dragging a rusty nail round a piece of old Bakelite using a spring, there’s got to be enough power to drive a transistor radio. All I did was to get a DC motor, hooked up two wires to the back of a cheap transistor radio, and then put that little motor into the truck of a hand brace. Away she went, before the programme had even finished.” This prototype formed the framework of his most celebrated invention, the wind-up radio, that required no batteries and could be people-powered.

However, despite creating a device that would go on to make a genuine impact on the education of a continent about the threat of HIV, it was not plain sailing to get the product to market. In a series of rejection meetings that every inventor will be more than familiar with, Baylis faced head shake after head shake, including the letter from the Design Council that read “the people who want it cannot afford it, and it couldn’t be made in Britain”. That letter still hangs on his toilet wall to this day.

 

1993_Opwindradio (Trevor Baylis, GB)Baylis achieved his big break with his invention three years after its genesis, when it was profiled on the BBC show, Tomorrow’s World. With the exposure came the investors, and just two years later an invitation to meet both Queen Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela, to say thank you to the visionary inventor for his work in educating Africans about the killer virus.

To this day, he ranks meeting the South African leader amongst his finest hours. “When Mr Mandela endorsed what I was doing, well that was wonderful. I went over to Pretoria and sat in his house, and he was talking to me like I was an old buddy of his. And then I showed him the radio, and then they opened the factory, and distributed the radios around Africa. Just a truly lovely man.”

These days Baylis lives a quiet life in the house he built himself, spending his days crafting new inventions in his workshop, and running an agency that supports fellow inventors with patent protection of their ideas. It’s a humble life for a man of such repute, but in absolute keeping with his friendly, low-key persona.

When we meet it is at his home on the quirky small island of Eel Pie, situated in the middle of the Thames. Access is via boat or small footbridge, and just fifty houses share the idyllic and unusual locale. Several rock stars live nearby, and it is a haven for artists, but for Baylis it is just home, and has been for decades.

Wearing a neat blue shirt and jeans, whilst frequently puffing on a pipe, the first thing he wants to talk about is a nice story he’s read in the paper recently about a three year old boy, who has become Britain’s youngest inventor. “This young man, just three years old, has created something quite brilliant. He was with his dad in the back garden sweeping the lawn with a stiff broom. Then he sees his father put the stiff broom away, and get a soft broom to sweep up after. This little boy said, “Dad, why don’t you strap the soft broom on the back of the stiff broom, then you wouldn’t have to keep on going backwards and forward to the shed?” Anyway, the father filed for a patent, which has now been granted, and that patent stays with that little boy for the next twenty years.”

Does the man that has been dubbed the living godfather of British invention think that young inventors like this are the future?

“God, yes. I always say art is pleasure, but invention is treasure. What’s more important, dead sheep in formaldehyde or a paper clip? We have very little in the education system for encouraging the next generation of inventors, but we have an opportunity to make Britain lead the world once again in invention. I would love to see us create a Bachelor of Invention, alongside Arts and Science.”

So he believes the school system lets down would-be inventors?

“Absolutely, we have to bring invention in as part of the National Curriculum. We should be teaching kids all about great inventors, and what they achieved. For example, have you ever heard of Mary Anderson? She was the inventor of the windscreen wiper in 1903. Stephanie Kwolek? She invented Kevlar. You think of how many people’s lives have been saved because of her invention. What about Heather Lamarr? She was a fantastic mathematician, and her torpedo technology is in every mobile phone to this day.

“These are amazing people, but their work is not known or celebrated. In other words we’ve got to encourage our youngsters to get off their backsides and have a go, by inspiring them at a young age.”

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Baylis cites his father’s teaching of practical skills at a young age to be seminal in his ability to invent. He frequently refers to “chance favouring the prepared mind”, and believes that it’s the understanding how things work that allows creative minds to overcome problems with practical solutions. “I don’t get up in the morning thinking I’m going to invent something today. Rather, my understanding of mechanics and how things work means I can think up solutions to problems, based on knowing how appliances fit together.

“It’s a bit like me as a child in my dad’s workshop, learning how things fitted together. I want all kids to do basic how-things-work education, and stop becoming too computer dependent too soon. Because, if they’re in a situation where they can’t get any electricity or mobile phone signal, they’ve got to know how to make a fire, or how to cut a bit of wood, or how to drive a nail in the wall – all the basic stuff, which is absolutely essential.”

Not that Baylis believes that digital technology is a negative thing. “These kids now can do stuff far beyond what I can in terms of use of computers and modern technology, but we mustn’t get our children computer dependent. New technology is terrific, and we must teach our kids about the latest advances, but not at the complete abandonment of more manual technical skills too.”

Baylis understands that today’s marketplace is an increasingly difficult one for entrepreneurial inventors, with intellectual property protection rather less adhered to in different territories around the world.

There are very real copyrighting issues, particularly involving some international territories, where the IP laws are a lot more lax. In other words you could go out and spend thousands of pounds with your lawyer protecting your idea, or so you think, using the patents system. But then someone on the other side of the world comes up and makes an identical thing to you. Now, how on earth are you going to take them to court?

“I’d like the patent system to be an international thing. We don’t want the system in America to be different to the one we’ve got here, to be different to the one in China, because you’ve got a problem in the language difference. And so therefore it just becomes lawyer versus lawyer. Well we don’t want that. The theft of intellectual property should become a white collar crime, because if I was to nick your car I could go to jail. But if a big corporation was to steal your invention, which could be worth a billion pounds potentially, well how are you going to take them to court? We need to look after the little guys.

“And there are plenty of other financial problems too for modern inventors. You see, it’s still the case that most of us don’t have all the skills we need to bring a product to market, so to launch a product in most instances you need outside investment. The perfect scenario for an inventor and investor is a big commercial seller, that solves a problem. But in these instances, when the money rolls in, the inventor should not be rolled out, and that is happening more and more.

“I want UK plc to stand behind the lone inventor, and protect them from overseas threats and unscrupulous moneymen. We have to ensure that the minimum return for the inventor will be, say, five per cent, which doesn’t sound a lot, but if you’re turning over a billion pounds, it ain’t bad.”

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Does he feel that the BBC’s Dragon’s Den, which has on occasion mocked inventors, is a good advert for inventor and investor relations?

“I’m very, very anti Dragon’s Den. Alright, they might be trying to make amusing entertainment, but I don’t think that the inventors that put themselves in the firing line should have the piss taken out of them on prime time television. Quite the contrary, they should be respected for having the guts to get off their backsides and have a go. Alright, it doesn’t always work, alas, but we should encourage it, and not have them mocked or ripped off like a turkey, if the investor decides to get involved.”

What advice would the successful inventor give MoneyMaker Magazine readers, with their own inventions ideas? “It’s common-sense stuff. When you’re designing a new product, think KISS – keep it simple, stupid. The best solutions tend to be those that leave you wondering why no-one had thought of it before. And, of course, if you do have a good idea, only discuss it with people you trust, because once you’ve let the cat out of the bag and it’s in the public domain, you cannot then protect it.”

Would the master inventor, with his hundreds of inventions, some of which have been picked up, and many of which are still in prototype form, recommend the life of invention for others?

“I’ve always believed that you should follow your heart in life. The most important thing for me is not money. Alright, if you don’t work you don’t eat, but you’ve got to have a life. Do what gives you a buzz and that’s what I’ve always done. I have no regrets for doing it. If you do go down this route, you’ll find you have all kinds of hidden skills. Because of the mechanical world I learned as a boy, I was able to build my own house by my own hands, build my own swimming pool, build my own workshop, which I have worked in every day since. If that sounds like something someone would like to do, then go for it.

“It’s a great life, and it’s given a young kid from London with barely any education a chance to see travel the world and see some wonderful things, and meet some incredible people. Alright, it’s not always super-well paid, but, let’s face it, you can only wear one suit at a time, and I hate wearing suits. Do you know what I mean?”

Trevor Baylis Brands helps inventors to protect their idea, with absolute discretion applied. To find out more, visit www.trevorbaylisbrands.com.