Trevor Baylis: The inventor who wound up a success

A programme on the spread of Aids in Africa inspired inventor Trevor Baylis to invent a radio that didn't require batteries. However, once he had built his wind-up radio, he was faced with the challenge of finding investors...

The traditional view of inventors is that they have "Viennese accents, broken glasses and no social skills", says Trevor Baylis. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to him though. When he was 20, he joined the national service as a physical fitness instructor, swam for the army and went on to become a stuntman and underwater escapologist with the Berlin circus. Money earned from his career as an entertainer allowed him to set up Shortline Steel Swimming Pools, a company that supplies freestanding swimming pools to schools. But he was always tinkering away in his workshop, just as had been as a child, at different inventions.

"British inventions never made their creators any money though," says 69-year-old Baylis. "Whether it was Whittle's jet engine or Cockerell's hovercraft, they all ended up with nothing. In his later years, Cockerell couldn't even afford to bring his family on a hovercraft. I wanted to change that." And that is what he did, with his invention of the wind-up radio.

In 1989, he watched a TV programme on Aids in Africa, which reasoned that one way of halting the spread of the disease was by educating people through radio. Baylis thought, "I know, I'll invent a wind up radio that doesn't require batteries," and immediately retired to his workshop to work on a prototype. Two months of hammering away resulted in a radio that required two minutes of winding and ran for 14 minutes. It was a start, and over the next few years he set about improving the technology. Then he had to find investors.

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This wasn't easy. He wrote to the Design Council, but they told him it would be too expensive for the people he was targeting in the third world. He wrote to engineers, one of whom told him it would have a better chance of working if "I stuck it up my arse". Rejections from Richard Branson and Phillips followed, and by 1995 he thought that the product was doomed. It was then that the BBC featured his product on TV. "If it hadn't been for the BBC and the Tomorrow's World team, I don't know what would have happened. All of a sudden the offers started coming in."

One of the callers was Christopher Staines, an accountant, who helped Baylis find contacts and then financial backing from both business and government. By the end of 1995, a factory in South Africa started churning out the radios, now called the Freeplay' radio. Thanks to some painstaking work from Baylis, they now ran for up to an hour on 30 seconds of winding, and in 1996 they won the BBC Design Award for Best Product and Design. A year later, it had sold more than 160,000 units.

In 2000, however, Baylis accepted an offer of £1.3 million from investors,

"a good pension fund", he says, and now lives happily on Twickenham's Eel Pie Island. "I never wanted to be the richest man in the graveyard - I just wanted to do what I loved, it's what gives you a buzz."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.