Aidex Voices

Following the death of the pioneer of the wind-up radio which revolutionised public health communications in Africa, we take a look at how Trevor Baylis’ became known as ‘the classic British inventor’ and why his innovations still inspire sustainable design today.  

Trevor Baylis was watching a TV programme about the spread of HIV/Aids in Africa in 1991, when an idea came to him that would make him a hallmark name in the business of sustainable design.

Horrified by the lack of life-saving information available to people because electricity and batteries were rare and expensive at the time, Baylis imagined an old fashioned wind-up gramophone and thought, “surely you can have a human-powered radio?”

A sustainable solution

Baylis headed to his garage and made a working prototype within half an hour. The design didn’t rely on external power sources and used cheaper, non-polluting batteries, making it durable as well as easy to repair which ensured sustainability. Across a continent that had widespread limited access to electricity, the wind-up radio pioneered a solution to a social, economic and environmental problem.

He approached many manufacturers, all of whom turned him away. Until an opportunity to appear on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World programme in 1994 finally brought his invention to the attention of the public. A South African company, BabyGen Power Industries spotted Baylis’ radio and went into business with him to launch the FreePlay Radio. It featured a hand crank that could generate an hour of running power if wound for just thirty seconds.

He went on to be awarded the BBC Design Award for Best Product and Best Design and found himself “sitting in Nelson Mandela’s house, chatting away as if we were old mates”, he once recalled.

Baylis’ wind-up radio helped millions of people in the developing world by communicating the danger of Aids to the public across Africa. His success and publicity however did not translate to wealth and he reported to be “totally broke” by 2013, due to loopholes in patent law. Despite this, Baylis was at heart a humanitarian who insisted, “it’s not about money, it’s about decency”.

Designs for the less able

Inspired by his time as a stuntman, Baylis had a background of inventing over 200 devices to help people with disabilities, which he branded Orange Aids. Designs include one-handed bottle openers, foot-operated scissors, can openers and sketching easels.  

Trevor Baylis shoe phone charger

He went on to create electric shoes that charged mobile phones through walking, which he demonstrated in 2001 by walking 100 miles across the Namib desert in southern Africa to raise funds for the Mines Advisory Group charity. Baylis generated enough electricity for someone to phone back to London and have an airtime call with Richard Branson.

Promoting and protecting other inventors

By establishing the Trevor Baylis Foundation in 2003, he could encourage people to develop new products and advise them on protecting their ideas. Baylis campaigned passionately for intellectual property theft to be made a criminal offence to prevent other inventors being short-changed as he had been. Through the Foundation, Baylis has directly helped over 10,000 people. When asked what the next great life-saving invention should be in an interview seven years ago, he urged the need to recognise and champion more women inventors.

Becoming involved with AidEx first in 2011, Baylis was a passionate ambassador for the event and a dynamic and charismatic judge for the coveted Aid Innovation Challenge Award, which sets out to find unique inventions impacting the delivery of aid. He stood out for his clear understanding of complex technical issues while adding sparkle with his unique humour and wit to the panel.

Trevor Baylis at AidEx 2011

Baylis is considered ‘the classic British inventor’ and was deservedly awarded with an OBE in 1997. He may not have been financially successful, but his invention set an example of the importance of balancing social, ethical, environmental and economic factors in the design process. His determination to solve problems and come up with new ideas, meant that despite his passing on 5 Mach 2018 at 80 years old, Trevor Baylis’ legacy continues to inspire others to invent creative solutions to tackle global problems.