By the time he turned 50, Trevor Baylis had led a varied life. He swam for Great Britain at the age of 15 and missed qualifying for the 1956 Olympics by only one-tenth of a second. He also served as a physical training instructor with the British Army, joined the Berlin Circus and worked as a stuntman for movies, a job that led to him teaching Peter Cook and Dudley Moore how to escape through a car’s window.
But his true calling was still ahead. In 1991, he invented the first windup radio, which launched a lucrative career as one of England’s most prolific inventors. Baylis died on Monday at 80 after a lengthy illness, the CEO of his firm, Trevor Baylis Brands, told the Associated Press.
His idea for the radio came in 1991 as he was watching a TV documentary about the insidious spread of AIDS across Africa. The program mentioned how the government was having trouble spreading the notion of safe sex.
“Most of Africa did not have electricity,” he told the New York Times. “The only way they could possibly stop this from happening is with the spread of information, most effectively with radio.”
So he got to work, modeling a prototype of a windup radio after an antique phonograph.
“I thought about an old fashioned windup gramophone and thought: surely you can have a clockwork radio?” he told the Financial Times. “I went out to the garage and within half an hour had a working prototype.”
The radio was mechanical, meaning it wasn’t powered by electricity or a battery. Instead, its user turned a crank, which stored energy in a spring inside the box. When the user stopped turning the crank, that energy was released.
Two minutes of turning the small crank produced 14 minutes of airtime, according to MIT. He acquired funding, dubbed his invention the Freeplay radio, and by 1995 began distributing them through Africa.
The invention changed his life. He received the Order of the British Empire and the President’s Medal from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in England in 1997. He met Queen Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela.
He then focused on inventing for a living. As he told Wired: “I have a … good life, don’t I? It’s so much fun, it really is. I’m being paid to sit on Eel Pie Island and think about this stuff.”
Baylis had dabbled in inventing since he was a child. When he was 12, he shot the neighbor’s chimney off its roof with a rocket he powered with homemade gunpowder, according to the Guardian. After his success with the windup radio, he continued creating devices that used the crank to generate power. In 2002, for example, he created the FreeCharge, a crank that could be attached to Motorola cellphones to power the battery if it died, according to the New York Times.
He also created a number of other strange gizmos, notably several prototypes of shoes that generate electricity when the user walks, as Wired reported.
Mostly, though, he focused on creating tools to help those living with disabilities, a line of products he called Orange Aids. He was inspired by his stuntman days after meeting so many colleagues who were injured on the job, according to MIT.
“Many friends broke their necks. That’s how I got involved with Orange Aids, making products for the disabled,” he told the Financial Times. “I made a one-handed bottle opener, foot operated scissors and so on. It was so easy — I just modified everyday things a little — but it brought tears to my eyes to see someone in a wheelchair using one of my gizmos to perhaps paint for the first time.”
“Everyone should try tying their arm to their side for an hour to see how difficult everyday tasks become when you have a disability,” he added.
He created several items that could be used with one hand, such as graters, sieves, sketching easels and binoculars — even smoking aids, according to the Guardian.
Despite the good he did, he often insisted his work was selfish.
“I don’t do things because I want to do good; I do things because I like to show off,” Baylis often said, according to the Guardian.
Inventing isn’t nearly as difficult as it’s made out to be, he insisted. All it requires, he said, is looking at the world from another perspective.
“Inventors are ordinary folk like me, lateral thinkers who just happen to look at things differently and ask, ‘Why not?’ ” Baylis told Wired.
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