Trevor Baylis: From Inventor's Bliss to Patently Broke

By Sam Gibbs on at

When you think of Trevor Baylis, you think of the invention that was meant to have made him, the wind-up radio. An innovation that easily ranks within the 50 best British inventions of all time, and which should have made him a mint, but for various reasons, didn't. Baylis may be an inventor and a dreamer, but did you know he was also an aquatic stunt performer; an escape artist, and served in the army? Now he's broke, and this is why that's a crying shame...

Trevor Baylis was born in Kilburn, London, but grew up in Southall, Middlesex. As a kid he was a keen swimmer and, according to legend, narrowly missed out on going to the 1956 Summer Olympics swimming for the team GB. It was that love of the water that got him his kick-start in life.

Upon finishing his National Service, Baylis began working for Purley Pools, the first freestanding swimming pool manufacturer. He started as a salesman, but then, as his inventive spirit kicked in, moved to the research and development side. Because of his swimming prowess, Baylis was able to demonstrate the pools he was selling. That quickly turned into a career in aquatic display, setting up his own water-stunt company. He was the bloke who dived from high springboards into glass-sided boxes for money, fame, and fortune, even on TV -- certainly not work for the faint of heart.

Baylis also took a job as an underwater escape artist with the Berlin Circus, which earned him enough money to take him back to his love of inventing. He set up a company called Shotline Steel Swimming Pools, which provided a myriad of modular swimming pools to schools across the UK and got him back in a workshop.

It wasn't until 1993 that inspiration really struck, tough. The story goes that while watching a documentary about the AIDS epidemic in Africa, Baylis saw the potential to help people out. The documentary described how radio was about the only way of getting information out to dispersed people, but getting power for said radio was near-on impossible.

Before the program had ended, Baylis was in his workshop, tinkering with a hand crank, an old electric motor from a toy car, and a radio. He quickly cobbled together a working prototype, adding a spring that could be charged by the hand crank, which then drove the electric motor to create electricity to power the radio. His first effort lasted 14 minutes from a two-minute winding -- not bad for an initial stab by any means, but Baylis reckons anyone who sets their mind to it could have done the same. He's famously quoted as saying that "the key to success is to risk thinking unconventional thoughts. Convention is the enemy of progress. As long as you've got slightly more perception than the average wrapped loaf, you could invent something"

After quite a few failed attempts to get someone to pick the thing up and make it, Baylis got lucky by being featured on Tomorrow's World. A South African entrepreneur immediately saw the value in it, and with the help of The Liberty Group, set up BayGen Power Industries. After a bit of technical development by Bristol University, the FreePlay wind-up radio hit production, with Baylis even making it so that disabled South African people could man the production machines.

At that point, things were going well. Baylis had heard the call, answered a need, and was helping people, but he forgot to help himself along the way. The company he founded was quickly renamed Freeplay, and its investors decided that the clockwork needed to be replaced. At that point Freeplay developed its own battery-charging solution, which effectively cut Baylis' patent out of it. According to John Hutchinson, chief technology officer at Freeplay, Baylis then sold his shares in the company and lost the patent for the clockwork radio -- swallowed by the company he helped create. As Baylis put it, talking to The Telegraph last month:

"I was very foolish. I didn't protect my product properly and allowed other people to take my product away. It is too easy to rip off other people's ideas."

In fact, Baylis lost total control of his product, and apparently failed to receive any profits from its sale. Baylis continued to invent, unperturbed, with such highlights as an electricity-generating shoe that can power up a phone or radio while you walk; various hand-cranked chargers and media players; a briefcase that can weigh itself, and a myriad of devices to aid the disabled.

Despite gaining legions of honorary degrees and doctorates, the trouble was that because Baylis didn't have the business smarts of someone like Dyson -- just the inventor's spirit -- he didn't think in terms of money, patents, and property. That let his partners and manufacturers take his ideas; spin them a little, and go it alone, cutting Baylis out of any and all profits from his ideas: "I had been used to doing business on a handshake and my word of honour, and I made the error of actually believing what the men in the pin-striped suits told me."

After his own experiences, Baylis even went as far as to set up a business that was specifically designed to help inventors protect their ideas and bring them to market, called Baylis Brands, but unfortunately that soaked up the rest of his capital. Now Baylis has confessed to being absolutely broke and living in poverty, which considering just how many wind-up radios, chargers and other ideas the man sold is just insane.

“Even when someone has a bright idea, what tends to happen is that it goes off abroad to China to be manufactured. Once something is being manufactured overseas, then those ideas can be stolen.

It just goes to show that all the Chinese knock-offs, patent wars, and idea stealing that goes on really does kill off innovation, and more importantly, the dreamers behind them, "we need to value inventors, otherwise more will end up with nothing."

[Wikipedia, The Telegraph, Trevor Baylis Brands, Windup Radio]

Image credit: Wikipedia, Gears from Shutterstock

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