TECHNO SAVVY : Winding up the radio

The Guardian


It is exactly 10 years since Trevor Baylis first appeared on a BBC TV science show with an idea that he thought could change the lives of millions of Africans — a simple radio powered by clockwork that would need no batteries or external power source. It was a great idea, easily understood yet admired by the finest minds for its ingenuity. Ten years on, Baylis is in a bitter mood. Divorced from the company that developed his idea, he is frustrated by his lack of riches and an overwhelming sense of being cut off from his invention. He remains a shareholder in Freeplay, the company that developed his idea, but was ignominiously sacked as a consultant in 2002. But in a new initiative, the company itself is already going some way to fulfilling Baylis’s dreams of building and distributing radios throughout Africa. Baylis’s clockwork radio was inspired by a television programme which explained that Aids in Africa could be prevented if only people had access to the right information. He had produced a working prototype in the late 1980s but few wanted to know. The Design Council told him nobody could make a profit from such an invention and to this day his wall is lined with rejection letters.

Baylis himself did not develop the clockwork radio beyond the initial prototype he showed on Tomorrow’s World. Engineers at Bristol University turned his early model, which ran for a modest 14 minutes, into a device that could be commercially developed. But Baylis’s name is on the patent. Today, Freeplay produces a range of self-powered devices, including flashlights and mobile phone chargers. Since it went into full production in 1996, more than three and a half million devices, mostly radios, have been sold. Another testament to the brilliance of Baylis’s original idea is how widely it has been copied. Wind-up radios and charges are now marketed by the likes of Sony, Grundig and Morphy Richards. In 2001, the company moved further away from Baylis’s original prototype and dispensed with clockwork altogether. Its products remain self-powered, either through hand-cranking or solar panels, but now its designs incorporate a rechargeable battery. According to Freeplay’s engineers, the battery does not suffer from negative memory effects — which normally shorten its life if it is not properly recharged after each use. By recharging Freeplay’s battery by sunlight and human cranking, varying amounts of power recondition the battery, meaning that it should last for years.

True to Baylis’s original vision, the company recently created the Freeplay Foundation, a charitable trust that distributes self-powered radios to the developing world, where they are needed most. The radio is to Africa what the Internet is to the developed world and the average listener tunes in for 10-15 hours a day. The company’s latest product is the one that comes closest to Baylis’ original vision. The Lifeline Radio is a larger, sturdier and surprisingly lighter version of its predecessor wind-up radios and has been produced exclusively for the developing world. The antenna is made from ordinary wire, so it can easily be replaced. The rainbow-shaped dial has large print for easy reading. Fully charged, the radio runs for 24 hours. It is exceptionally rugged, continuing to play even when knocked out of a first-floor window, twice. It also comes with a detachable solar panel and the base is drilled with holes. If the radio gets wet, the water just flows out of the bottom. The Freeplay Foundation plans to place 1,00,000 Lifeline radios in Africa this year.

Trevor Baylis wanted his wind-up wireless to change the lives of millions of Africans. Ten years on, he has little connection with the company realising his dream.