Trevor Baylis shot to national fame when he invented the clockwork radio, which just needs winding up to be operated. After the radio was shown on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World in 1994, the product was distributed to areas of Africa where electricity is scarce. Baylis has continued his involvement in invention, setting up Baylis Brands to help inventors get their ideas to market.
He spoke exclusively to Startups.co.uk about his career and how entrepreneurs can make the most of their ideas.
You were a stuntman and in the army before you became famous as an inventor, which is an unusual career path for an entrepreneur isn’t it?
Well, I’d learnt to swim in the canal, during the war, so I joined a swimming club and by the age of 15 I was swimming for Great Britain. I then worked in a soil mechanics company, which is a branch of civil engineering.
I then did my national service and then thought it would be good if I could combine swimming and engineering. So I got a job as a swimming pool salesman at a company who made the first free-standing swimming pool.
We weren’t getting any sales at the shows we exhibited in, so I asked my boss if I could have a swim. So I was swimming up and down, and before we knew it, there was a huge crowd of people around the pool and we started getting sales.
A bloke came up to me and asked if I had thought of doing any stunt work. So I was doing high dives and all kinds of extraordinary things. I was always a show off.
I then set up Shotline Swimming Pools. We’ve got about 250 free-standing swimming polls in schools across the UK now.
Have you always had an interest in invention then?
Well, messing about, yes. I used to tinker with cars and I’ve always had a boat. I’ve followed my heart – my attitude is that it’s not about the money. I can’t imagine anything worse than having to hack my way right up the other side of town to some ghastly office, looking at a computer all day, examining the watch because there’s an important meeting about the men’s toilets at 3pm!
As an inventor, you bring the day job with you.
Explain how you came up with the idea for the wind-up radio
It was pure chance. It was 1989 and I was watching the TV. I had my feet up, my pipe in my mouth and the TV controller was out of reach. I was watching this programme about the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, I didn’t stretch out far enough to get the controller, I could’ve been watching Come Dancing or something, but by chance I was watching this programme where they were saying that the only way in which they could stop this dreadful disease was by education and information which could be best bought to Africa by radio.
But the problem was that most of Africa didn’t have electricity and the only other form of electricity was through batteries, and where do you get them in Africa? So I go in a dreamland where I’m in colonial Africa where I have a monocle, a gin and tonic and a fly swatter and I’m listening to some raunchy number on my wind-up gramophone with a big horn on the top.
And I think, hang on, if you can get all that noise by dragging a rusty nail along a piece of paper like you’re using a spring, there’s got to be enough power in the spring to drive a small dynamo which in turn will drive a radio.
It’s taken me longer to describe that to you than it happened at the time. While the TV was still on, I went into my workshop, which was the graveyard of a thousand domestic appliances, and assembled the thing.
What did you do next?
I had to protect the idea, so I got a patent attorney, because no-one pays you for a good idea, but they might pay you for a piece of paper which says you own the idea.
I then went to everybody to get help to make this thing happen, and they all turned me down.
Did this dishearten you?
Of course it did, one of the things about being an inventor is that you have to have an ego the size of a truck. Without that determination, you get talked down to or laughed at. I have an attitude that I don’t mind anyone looking down at me, as long as they don’t expect me to be looking up.
I went through all that shit, and the rest, as they say, went like clockwork.
So once you appeared on Tomorrows World, did the offers come flooding in?
Yes, everyone thought I was a genius whereas up to then, I was just another silly little man.
After the radio, I made an electric shoe and walked across the Namibian desert trying to raise money for anti-personnel mine detection. That didn’t go anywhere, because after 9/11 anyone who with a devise strapped to his or her shoe would be in big trouble. But I’ve just seen one of the large shoe companies has started to make an electric shoe – they stole my idea.
All British inventions go overseas; this nation is appalling when it comes to looking after its inventions. They have to make their own arrangements and if they have their inventions stolen, they can’t even have their day in court.
If UK Plc is not going to lose entitlement to all its inventions, it’s got to stand by the little guy who has to do so much to fund his invention. It’s not just building the prototype, it’s showing yourself off and you’ve got to raise the money from somewhere, because you don’t know who to trust.
You were involved in a dispute over money with the South African company that manufactured and sold the radio. What went wrong?
I thought I could trust them. You do so much on the basis of a handshake – ‘Don’t worry Trev, we’ll look after you’.
All I got out of those sharks was about £400,000. They turned me over like a proverbial turkey. We settled a deal for about £1.3 million, but I thought they were a decent crowd so I invested £500,000 in the company and spread the balance over five years, so that I had an income.
After two years, they stopped paying me.
What would you have done differently?
I would’ve had a team of really good corporate lawyers on my side, so that when something came through the post I could run it past them.
What I try to do now is to make sure that any other inventor with a patent that is infringed has their day in court.
What more could the government do to help entrepreneurial inventors?
We’ve got to get invention as part of the national curriculum and teach kids about intellectual property as they are sharing their ideas with their friends – they don’t know they are disclosing their ideas.
This can all be taught. My attitude is that there’s an invention in all of us. If you can solve a problem, you are on the way to being an inventor. Every now and then, there’s something that’s rather unique, so you’ve got to recognise when that comes along and do something about it.
Can you realistically make a living from inventions?
I do believe so. There are people that do it, but it’s expensive and if you’re not careful the large corporations will steal the idea from you. One of the things I would insist on if I was in government is that if a corporation refuses to sign a non-disclosure agreement, you should refuse to show them your invention.
We’ve got to make it easier for inventors to get to make it to the market. As along as we make sure that when the money rolls in the inventor isn’t rolled out, then he or she can make a living from the invention.
What would you advice be to a budding inventor?
Firstly, don’t tell everyone about it. Secondly, get literature from the Patent Office and read all about how to protect your idea.
If you wish, you can approach us and we’d be delighted to look at your invention. It’s important that these inventors don’t get shafted.
As they say, art is pleasure, invention is treasure, and this nation has got to recognise that. If they can spend a fortune on dead sheep and formaldehyde, then it can spend a bit more of that money on inventors.