In Memoriam Trevor Baylis: the life-saving wind-up radio and the precarious lot of the sole inventor


There are few more heroic images in the IP world than the sole inventor, assiduously engaged in inventive activity in the privacy of a garage or shed. While the realities of modern-day invention stand in stark contrast to this imagery, there continue to be exceptions. A most notable example was the English inventor Trevor Baylis, he of the seemingly ubiquitous pipe, who passed away on March 5th at the age of 80. The story of Trevor Baylis is a tale of the tensions experienced by sole inventors as they continue to invent-- against all the odds.

Born and raised in London, the son of an engineer, Baylis was in his youth as much an athlete as a fledging inventor. An accomplished swimmer who competed for Great Britain at the age of 15, he nearly missed being part of the 1956 Olympic team in Melbourne. He later worked as a stuntman. Baylis served as an “underwater escape artist’ in Berlin, so successfully that, as quoted by the BBC in his own words,
It was fantastic. I made enough money to buy a plot of land and build the house of my dreams.
As for his technical training, his first job was in a soil mechanics laboratory, which allowed him a day-release opportunity to study mechanical and structural engineering. While Baylis had a number of patents to his credit, he was best known for his invention of the BayGen wind-up (also known as a “clockwork”) radio, intended for people that did not have electricity or could not afford batteries to power a radio. The motivation for the radio came in the early 1990’s, when Baylis watched a television documentary on Aids in Africa, which talked about the potential of radio programs in providing critical information that could prevent the spread of the disease. The problem was that many of those infected had no access to a radio.

Baylis’s invention sought to address this problem. As described--
“[t[he original prototype included a small transistor radio, an electric motor from a toy car, and the clockwork mechanism from a music box.”
A patent application was duly filed. After several early rejections, in 1994, Baylis was able to present the device on a BBC One episode of “Tomorrow’s World”, which attracted great interest. Already in 1996 it won the BBC Design Award for Best Product and Best Design and the World Vision Development Initiative. Baylis was awarded an OBE (Office of the Order of the British Empire) in 1997 and the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2015. He met both the Queen and Nelson Mandela and became a popular speaker and media presenter. Numerous universities conferred on him an honorary degree. The radio itself was reportedly named one of the 50 greatest inventions in British history. Most importantly, the invention led to the saving of countless lives.

All of this would seem to be a tale of a sole inventor who contributed to the welfare of society and was compensated for his efforts. Not exactly: Baylis never appears to have made much money from the wind-up radio (or any other of his invention-based activities). The radio was manufactured, beginning in 1997, pursuant to an agreement with a Cape Town-based company. But as reported in his own words, he ended up with only a “fraction” of what he had been promised (despite that millions of such radios were sold around the world). In a 2013 article in The Telegraph about his financial state, Baylis stated that--
I’m going to have sell to it [his house] or to remortgage it--I am living in poverty here”.
As for the radio, he claimed that his South African business partner designed around his patent.
You have to take someone to court to stop them, but as a lone inventor, you just can’t afford to do that. If they just change the design slightly, then they can claim that they have got around the patent.”
Even more pointedly, Baylis stated:
"If people are not going to be rewarded for their inventions, then why should they invent at all."
He went on—
The Government needs to stand behind the lone inventor. [He advocated for making patent infringement a criminal act publishable by imprisonment.] There needs to be the better support to help inventors keep their designs and to help them flight the big boys.
Besides trying to engage government, Baylis also established Trevor Baylis Brands, with the intent of providing information to inventors to better enable them to determine whether their idea works and, if so, how to protect and market their inventions. In his words, as quoted by the Financial Times--
Art is pleasure but inventions is treasure. What is more important to society: a sheep in formaldehyde or a paper clip.”
But Baylis showed some ambivalence about the role of commercial reward in connection with his inventions. Following notice of his death, The New York Times quoted Baylis in a BBC interview as saying—
Inventing is not about the money. Who wants to be the richest man in the graveyard?"
Baylis expressed this view in greater length in 2011 in the Financial Times interview, stating that—
I cover my costs, but it’s not about money, it’s about decency….I’ve got everything that I want and find myself worrying about petty things like the upstairs television being broken. That’s terrible when you realise how bad the poorest of the poor in developing countries have it, so I want to help them.”
He went on—
"With my radio and other inventions, it’s nice to think I’ll be leaving something more than a brass plaque on a bench.”
So who was Trevor Baylis? The sole inventor, moved by a television documentary, sought to come up with a better way to provide life-saving health and other information, and who forever took pride in his contributions to society, or was he a slightly bitter inventor who felt that the system had worked against him? (After all, his most lucrative engagement may have been as a stunt man.) Or perhaps the tensions that Baylis himself expressed are simply part and parcel of being a sole inventor in today’s world.

By Neil Wilkof

Photo on upper right by Euchiasmus, who has released the work into the public domain.

Photo on lower left by A. Preverett, licensed by Science Museum Group under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.
In Memoriam Trevor Baylis: the life-saving wind-up radio and the precarious lot of the sole inventor In Memoriam Trevor Baylis: the life-saving wind-up radio and the precarious lot of the sole inventor Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Sunday, March 11, 2018 Rating: 5

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

If he died at 80, he was born in 1938 so indeed could not make the 1936 Olympic team.

Neil Wilkof said...

Anonymous at 8:30 GMT, You are so right and with egg on this feline's face, it should read "1956".

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