|Dreams are the most extraordinary places
where inventions come from. a picture is worth a thousand words
and a dream is like ten million words.
He's been a yacht salesman,
movie stuntsman, television host and, more recently, an inventor.
But it's the last role that has brought Trevor Baylis his
fame and fortune. Often called Britain's P.T. Barnum (a 19th century
American showman), the 63-year-old high school dropout battled the
scientific community's indifference to launch a low-cost "wind
up" radio, Freeplay, that became a vital tool in the fight
against aids in Africa. In 1999 the self-confessed showman-inventor
sold his rights for £2.5 million (Rs 18.73 crore). His newest
invention is an electric shoe that allows batteries (of, say, mobile
phones) to be recharged by the piezoelectric crystal (a quartz-type
compound) in the heel. Now, Baylis-who grew up in Southall, London,
and has been to India on a British Council-sponsored tour-wants
to mentor young inventors through his Trevor Baylis Foundation.
BT's recently bumped
into the Jaguar-driving bachelor in London. Excerpts from the interview:
When you think of an inventor, you are supposed
to fit a certain type of a stereotype. You seem to defy all stereotypes.
The only way you are going to stop that is by
realising that, by saying that, what you are ironically doing is
insulting yourself. In other words, you are as much an inventor
as I am. You solve a problem and I solve a problem, but what you
and I don't catch though is that the way we solved our problems
might be so unique that everybody else would like to solve that
problem that way. In which case you have to try and protect that
solution to the problem by using a patent or something. In certain
instances it's better to just go with it. I know that in parts of
India the patent system doesn't exist. That makes it hard on us
who have to have patents. So unless we get a fairer system where
the costs are not so prohibitive, where a patent filed here means
exactly the same in India or in China, where you don't have to employ
countless lawyers and translators, where it's all one language patent
system, it's going to be difficult for inventors. After all, when
you fly an aircraft, if your pilot had to learn a new language at
every foreign airport, you'll have an accident every hour. The international
language for flying is English. It should be the same for patents.
The current patent system is archaic.
|I invent for pleasure. If I didn't want to
do it, I wouldn't do it. It is not profits. It is trying to
prove to myself that the wretched thing would work.
When we think of inventions or the ability
to create something unique, we assume that it requires more than
ordinary intelligence, in fact, genius. What is a high school dropout's
views on that?
My view is that you have to look outside the
square. In other words, dreams are the most extraordinary places
where inventions come from. A picture is worth a thousand words,
but a prototype is worth a million words and a dream is like ten
million words. You can do what you want in your dreams. The nice
thing is that if you can get yourself to a million-word situation
in your dreams, you can actually see the thing, sort it-as I did
for the radio. Then it's much easier to take that idea and turn
it into a prototype. Having said that, it's not just in the domain
of engineers. In a chemistry class you come up with amazing chemicals
that can be used to cure aids and otherwise. Basically there is
an inventor in all of us. You are potentially as good an inventor
as I am. It is just the question of you having the guts to do it.
The person who succeeds is usually the one who got off his seat
to do something.
How did the idea of a wind-up radio come
Just watching a programme about the spread of
aids in Africa. They said that the only way to stop it was by spreading
information and education, which could be brought to 600 million
people using the radio. But there was a problem. Most of Africa
doesn't have electricity. The only form of electricity available
at times is through batteries. But batteries were horrendously expensive,
and people were bartering their rice and maize in order to get the
batteries. I could see myself somewhere in the darkest Africa in
19th century, wearing a pith helmet, with a gin and tonic in my
left hand, listening to some raunchy number on my wound up gramophone
with a horn on the top. Thinking mechanically, if you can get all
of that noise by dragging a rusty nail over a piece of bakelite
using a spring, then surely there's enough power in the spring to
drive a small dynamo which in turn can drive a radio. That's how
the (wind-up) radio came about.
How did the electric shoe happen?
I was thinking to myself looking at the shoe
one day...shoes wear out, therefore, you must be doing work. You
know the body weight, you know the distance it travels, you know
the impact load and the approximate velocity. If you put all those
together then there's enough in the equation to generate enough
power to squirt a little bit of power into a mobile phone. That
was pure chance.
What drives Trevor Baylis to invent things?
Pleasure. If I didn't want to do it, I wouldn't
do it. It's not profits. It's trying to prove to myself that the
wretched thing would work. When I was a child I wasn't making a
toy that would earn me profits. I was working on an idea simply
because it gave me a lot of fun, which is fundamentally what I do
|You have to have an ego as big as a truck.
Otherwise you get blown away by the first person who comes along.
A lot companies want their employees to be
innovative. Is there any process by which it can be institutionalised?
Yes. The thing is that you can get far more
done by reward than by scolding. If someone comes up with a bright
idea that takes say a million pounds off the production line costs
then you might say give him a £50,000 BMW car. Then your accountant
says no we can't afford £50,000. Then you say shut up and
show him how you can. You get the managing director and the fellow
that took the million quid, take him out to the quadrangle, invite
the press and they take photographs of the key being given to the
guy. Two things happen. You get £200-300,000 worth publicity
to the company plus the fact that youngster has got the car and
everybody in the company says, ''Shit, I'd like a BMW car''. And
they then are inspired to have a go. That's the profitable way forward.
To treat people with respect.
What is the hardest part of being an inventor?
Overcoming other people's indifference. You
have to have an ego as big as a truck otherwise you get blown away
by the first person who comes along. There's lot of envy. When the
genie is out of the bottle it's so much easier. People say ah! it
is so obvious. Even I could have done that. Or I could have told
you that won't work. For me I'm in the bottle with the genie. That's
the fun part for me.
Is invention a 9 to 5 kind of a job for
No. It doesn't work that way. I don't get up
in the morning and say I'm going to invent something! What I tend
to do is if I have something which instinctively tells me is a "go-er",
and if I am enjoying it enough, I will go with it.
Are you an inventor with a heart? Do you
think what you invent should touch the everyday lives of people.
I do tend to think along those lines, but I'm
not a do-gooder. So, don't get the impression that I am some sort
of a holy child. But every product that I work on, I always try
to make it a personal power or a free electricity source. I'm very
interested in ecology, the third-world scenario, and disabled people.
I think I was a very lucky boy. I have got more than most and it's
payback time. Try and help other people bring their ideas to fruition,
and if they can make a few bucks, and improve their own social circumstances
by doing so, I will help.
Is that the idea behind the Trevor Baylis
Yes. It is to be able to take a person's idea
and make sure that when the money rolls in, that inventor is not
rolled out. Simultaneously, give them a little bit of showtime if
that's what they want and try and find the right manufacturers to
make sure that the product is made properly and the inventor is
not ripped off.
Is the foundation working exclusively in
No I would like it to be an international affair.
I went to India three years ago with the British Council and I know
just how inventive the Indians are. It's amazing. I was very impressed
with the whole thing. In fact, I'd love to go over and see those
guys again. I would like the foundation to work over there and help
inventors get off the ground. If we can find some guys in India
who are interested in backing the foundation it will be great. Remember,
it's about the inventor, and not so much about the people who've
put the money in. It's payback time...it's about about people who
have made their pile of money and believe that new people coming
through should be given a break. And that's fundamentally what (the
foundation) is about.
Do you have any regrets...of not having
done enough or do you think you could have done things differently?
The biggest disappointment that I had was that
I could not represent my country in the Olympic games in 1956. I
was a backstroke swimmer. I worked so hard to get to Melbourne and
I didn't make it. That is my biggest regret. It's a very competitive
sport and I just wasn't quick enough on that day.
Any regrets on the inventions front?
It's frustrating at times when nobody takes
up your invention, when you lack financial backers.
Is there any exciting new project you are
Well, it is for me to know and for you to guess