Let's wind up Trevor!

Physical trainer instructor, engineer, stunt man, developing aids for the disabled, swimming for Great Britain, inventing the wind-up radio - these are just a few of the things Trevor Baylis OBE has packed into his life so far. Justin Richards caught up with him to find out more.

What makes a good inventor?

Trevor Baylis (1) First things first - that word inventor. We are all - all of us - inventors. Everyone seems to think that an inventor has to have a Viennese accent, broken glasses and a white coat. A freak, if you like, which is incorrect. Basically, all of us have good ideas - which we do nothing about it, then a few months or years later you see the same thing in a shop window and think, 'Cor-blimey, why didn't I do something about that?' The majority of us have ideas that have been done before - you know the expression - great minds think alike.

We have to, in my opinion, teach invention. People say you can't teach invention, you can't teach art. At the end of the day achievement is more important than qualification. It's not what you say you can do, it's what you do. There's no point in saying: 'I'm a master chef.' if you can't fry an egg.

So would you become qualified as an inventor?

First of all you don't necessarily have to go to university. If you can solve a problem, and it's unique, it's never been done before, and there is a social and, hopefully, a commercial need for it, then you can file for a patent. Now at that stage you should automatically become a bachelor of invention.

It takes between four or five years before you get a full, granted patent, and it costs you money along the way. Now when you get a fully granted patent you would become a master of invention. By then you might be in production, you might have gone into business, by which stage you'd become a doctor of invention.

The important thing is to make sure that when the money starts to roll in the inventor is not then rolled out. Otherwise there's no point in inventing, if you've spent thousands of pounds protecting your idea and then some overseas predator nicks it. And if someone nicks your idea I think UK plc should stand behind the lone inventor because it's the British economy that will suffer as a result of your great invention being stolen by an overseas predator.

Has that happened to you?

It's done to everybody. In my case everybody started making wind-up torches, wind-up this, that and the other. But the worst thing for me was in the beginning. I went to everybody and they turned me down. Like the Design Council - they blew me away like I was a twit. I've still got the letter - it's on my toilet wall!

What it means is that, like all true grit, you've got to believe in yourself. I've got an expression. I don't mind anyone looking down on me as long as they don’t expect me to be looking up. Without true grit it doesn’t get done.

Now in my case I was the lucky one because the BBC World Service picked up on my story and as a result of that they could actually see the value of my wind-up radio in the third world. Then the BBC Tomorrow's World programme got hold of the story and the whole thing started to roll forward. Suddenly all those people who'd sent me rejection letters started saying 'oh yes Trev' we knew it would work' - all that rubbish! But I thought to myself, well if it can happen to me, it must be the same for everyone else.

One of the worst things you are up against is envy. People hate you for doing something they could have done themselves and they 'poo poo' you - 'I could have told you that, I did that...' If I hadn't filed for a patent when I did how could I have proved otherwise? Really, what it all comes down to is a measure of true grit and determination.

How did your company, Baylis Brands, come about?

None of us have all the skills we need to bring a product to market. My own history is eclectic. I was a stunt man, I swam for Great Britain, I made aids for the disabled, I installed 350 swimming pools for schools, I did an underwater escape act at a Berlin circus. I worked with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Dave Allen, and Dave Nickson, all those famous names, so I was always a show-off, always a showman.

I'd run my own business, so I had a certain measure of ability to survive. I didn't become a rich man, but if you don’t work you don't eat, so I made a living. And in a way it's not what you know but who you know. And I thought to myself, look Trevor, you've got to realise how difficult it is for lots of guys and girls out there - the only way we’re going to make it happen is to have an establishment which will look after the lone inventor.

The other thing that's wrong is that children are taught aren't taught intellectual property. Basically, what it comes down to is this - the word 'disclosure'. If you go down to the pub and tell everyone about your great idea you have put it into the public domain - once you have done that, you cannot file for a patent or any other form of protection, which could be design registration, brand, copyright, or whatever.

Unless you teach students about this, you cannot secure your intellectual property. It would be very easy for the students to learn by example, particularly if you made them laugh by showing them great inventions which didn't quite work. For example Clive Sinclair, he's very clever man, whose logic was there (he changed the world with his calculators) and he created the Sinclair C5. It didn't go anywhere, even though he got big investors like Hoover behind him. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we might have said 'Now look Clive if you had designed that device for a wheelchair or for a disabled person it would probably have been a winner!'

I was able to bring all my personal experience to the equation but I needed a lot more to beef me up. I've got two IP lawyers who work for me full time now and I've got the other guys who are finding a route to business and then to market. Of course through those other contacts I've made, I can speak to people in high places, which I can use to my advantage. So if a new gizmo or gadget comes through I can speak to one of the big boys, Richard Branson, for example, to help push it forward by doing a one-on-one. I want to use that advantage that I have now to make it happen for others with a bright idea.

I take it that's not you being solely altruistic?

No, we must get a financial return to pay the staff. I'm not the bloody YMCA!

The thing is there are so many sharks out there - there are so many venture capitalists. The other thing is that kids aren't taught anything about confidentiality agreements, about non-disclosure agreements - what the hell are they? These should be taught to all the students, then they wouldn’t be so naïve when dealing with the big companies. What normally happens is they say: 'That's not the way we usually do it here,' and you should say: 'well sorry, on your bike'.

Whilst you own that intellectual property you're in control but if you've blown it, bang, there's no way you're going to be able to turn over Mont Centre and take them to court. We need to find ourselves in the situation where the nation sees the theft of intellectual property as a white collar crime.

Why do you think it is that science, technology and engineering courses are less subscribed to these days?

I think it's crazy. This nation was built on the back of engineering and invention and entrepreneurship. While we don't want our children to become completely computer crazy to the point where they are wholly dependent upon it, they've still got to learn the basics.

So would you prescribe a 'back to basics' form of schooling with regard to engineering and science?

Look, if the electricity goes down or the battery's dead, they've got to be able to add two and two together with a pen. The trouble is, with the computer now it's so much easier than going to the library and doing a professional study. Now you just type a couple of digits into the keyboard and you can find out what you like, which is wonderful because there's no end to the knowledge that you can obtain.

However, you've got to be, first of all, set up with the basics so you do literally know how to change a light bulb. In other words the students should learn to use machine tools, (safely of course), so they can repair things, they can make things. Teach them to do the basics, so if they buy a house, for example, they can improve it. You've got to remember that it's fun.

I've got a workshop out there that you could call a playroom. What's so nice, because I work from home, is if I want to get up in the middle of the night, and go into the workshop and play about with my machine tools I can do - I don't have to put my wellington boots on and go down to some ghastly shed. It's a cosy little room. My workshop is my 'play shop' and I do come up with some crazy ideas. Same with the computer - if I want to get up and see what's come through I can do.

When I was five I could do the most amazing things with my Meccano and yet I couldn't write my name. In other words I knew the difference between nuts, bolts, screws and stuff even as a small child and I was sensible enough not to swallow them. Meccano for five year olds would probably be frowned upon by health and safety today.

Don't get me wrong, the computer is an absolute god-send; nevertheless the students have got to be taught the basics. I think that basic training should apply to all students whether they are secondary, primary, or whatever - in other words they should have sufficient hands-on experience regardless of how well qualified they are.

They've got to learn how to cut a bit of wood with a saw, do basic wood-working and metal-working. They should be shown how to do things properly and then, when they move on, they are shown how those basic principles have now been taken over by a machine and how it all works. That way they'll know some basics.

Do you think that the internet and ICT in general have made being an inventor easier?

Undoubtedly, especially from the lawyer's point of view or the patent attorney's point of view. It's so much easier now to do a search on the internet than wait for the patent papers to arrive from the patent office. The great thing about using a computer is you can do computer aided design. In other words now you can produce a three dimensional picture on a screen, which can then be converted into plastic or some alternative material. So sometimes, making a prototype is so much easier than in my day when it was all done with a hammer and chisel.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking the computer, (I've got a laptop myself), I think it's a wonderful piece of kit. However, I still think that you mustn't become so dependent upon it - it's a tool at the end of the day. If you lose that tool - what the hell are you going to do?

You've got to be able to have a back-up plan - where's the nearest library, where would you look for the information that you want if you didn't have a computer? You should also be able to do things long hand - when I was a boy the most advanced tool that I had was a slide rule, which we used to call a 'guess stick' because you had to guess where the decimal point was. And that's where the brain always comes into its own.

Do you think the present 'credit crunch' will have an affect on entrepreneurs and inventors like yourself?

I think that inventors, in a way, are out of the dilemma because they could come up with something, which could suddenly change everybody's lives; something which could generate a lot of profit and could employ a lot of people. I always say that art is pleasure, invention is treasure. And I really do mean that when I say treasure.

One of the things that BCS is keen to promote is professionalism within the IT industry - is there a code of conduct in the arena of invention?

That's what I'm trying to do now, and it's beginning to happen with the help of the patent office, and I'm getting the British Standards Institute involved. Basically, I believe that any society, club or organisation that purports to help inventors must perform to a British Standard. In other words they will not steal your idea and they will not turn you over. You've got to have codes of practice.

If you steal someone's intellectual property and it's proven it will cost you a quarter of a million pounds, or even more, and you will also lose your license. That's back to what I was saying about stealing IP being a white collar crime. We've got to have British standards. If you think about it inventions are the future. I mean all the man-made objects around us have been created by somebody and whether or not they were protected, when they went about manufacturing them, is another matter.

If you look through history there are many inventors who never got their dues. My favourite was Frank Whittle. The British Government wouldn't even listen to him in 1930 when he was 21. The Germans picked up on his invention and they had jet planes before the British did because the government ignored 21-year-old Frank Whittle.

Quite frankly, if we'd listened to Frank then World War II could have been World War 1.5 because, instead of Spitfires and Hurricanes, the RAF might have been flying jet planes. Christopher Cockerell, who I knew before he died, invented the hovercraft and couldn't even afford to take his family on a one.

How do you think the UK compares to other countries when it comes to invention and innovation?

We are amongst the best when it comes to invention but we among the worst when it comes to bringing those inventions to market. The government of this nation has wasted money on the Design Council, on the DTI, and all those other agencies - it's just bums on seats. Basically, no one can produce a list of inventors who have made the day because of the DTI or the Design Council. 

We've got to take inventors seriously and use the word inventor with pride. The perceived image is that inventors are a bit wacky.

Basically, if you can teach art - you can teach invention. You've got to ask yourself what's more important - dead sheep in formaldehyde or a paper clip? A paper clip could have been created by a four year old. How many of us have not seen and used a paper clip? Just think of the billions that have been created. It's really only a bit of bent wire. But how many, quite frankly, have actually seen the dead sheep in formaldehyde?

Looking ahead to the future, say in 10 -15 year's time, what sort of devices do you think we'll be walking around with?

If you think back 15 years, a mobile phone was the size of a car battery and only the rich or super rich would have one - and even then probably only use it as an affectation. When you consider mobile phones today, you wouldn't even know I had one in my pocket.

Can you imagine in 20 or 30 years time you'll probably just wear an earring which would do whatever you wanted it to do. All you'd have to do would be to signal it and you'd get an incoming call straight into your ear without really being aware of it being on your ear.

The biggest problem with computers at the moment is flat-screen lighting which takes a lot of power - and when we get to the point where we'll get a sensible sized screen, with letters of a size you can actually read, that will be more interesting still. The wind-up laptop must also be a consideration too.

I went to see a chap over in Boston at MIT to see this wind-up laptop - the thing was made of wood - but the concept was there. But if you do the sums you really will need plenty of power to get the screen up for long enough to get any proper use out of it. But I think it will get there eventually, bearing in mind how quickly new technologies are developing.

What gadgets do you use yourself?

My eco-player has got FM on it so I put that in my pocket and listen to that - I will often listen to that all day when I'm walking the dog, or just listening to Classic FM when I'm working. I've got a radio in the car and I watch the telly like everybody else. I use my computer for sending and receiving messages more than for anything else and of course I Google stuff, like, for example, when I'm trying to finish off a crossword.

You do become, to a degree, a bit computer dependent but then I still enjoy getting my hands dirty and I don't throw anything away - my workshop is the graveyard of a thousand domestic appliances. If anything gets broken I take all the screws, nuts and bolts out and stick them in recycled trays.

When I saw you speaking at a Future Technologies event you seemed very keen to get more women inventing and involved in technology. Can you explain your thoughts behind this?

Trevor Baylis (2) I am vice president of the European Women of Achievement Awards. And if I asked you, or anyone else, to name three women scientists, apart from Marie Curie, three women engineers and three women inventors I bet you'd be struggling.

But that doesn't make sense - there are more women on this Earth than there are men. We have got to stop treating women as if they are second to men - in other words we are equal - I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my mother. My dad and my mum were the most important people in my life.

We have to teach students about these women achievers and also about ethnic role models. We are all inventors, irrespective of where we come from, our sex, colour, or race.

The IT industry is struggling to recruit women because it's seen as being a bit geeky.

We have to drop the word geek. Everyone has the preconceived notion that to become an engineer you have to walk around all day with oily rags, wearing overalls covered in all sorts. But you can do things on the computer nowadays which means you don't have to go down that road. This can also be seen from a science point of view - research can be done on a computer.

Geeks are so called because most of us wouldn't have a clue what lies behind the screen - the computer is not like a car where you can lift up the bonnet and change a plug - it's one of those things that's beyond most of us in that sense.

Those little chips can do so many astounding things that unless you're a genius you wouldn't know what they can do or can't do. What's nice from the engineering point of view, with regards computers, is that you don't have to be covered in oil or wear dirty overalls.

The IT industry requires people with soft skills too, which women are often thought to be better at.

Yes of course - I know it, you know it. We need to reward women more. You get the best returns from the best women if you reward them and recognise them. All this rubbish about you can't have brains and beauty. Hedy Lamarr, who was the most beautiful woman, during the Second World War, did some torpedo technology * which is still being used in some mobile phones today, 60 years later.

What advice would you give to someone who has an enquiring mind, likes fiddling with things and fancies being an inventor?

It's back to what I said before - follow your heart - do what gives you a buzz.

I see people in Twickenham, they put their suits on every morning, get on the 7.30am train into London, with their regulation briefcase, they sit in some ghastly office overlooking a tower block, they're looking at their watch because there's an important staff meeting to discuss the staff toilets at 2 pm, then they hack they way back from the east end of London and then what do they do? They watch Eastenders on television.

If you're going to be leaving all your money to a cat's home why not work in a cat's home? Very often you can see in a person's Will what they wished they had done. For me, money is important to provide a roof over my head and food on the table but at the end of the day it's what gives you a buzz. Who wants to be bored all day long thinking: 'God, do I need this, well yeah 'cause I need the money.'

Is that what gets you out of bed in the morning - that innate sense of curiousity?

As an inventor you don't get up in the morning and say: 'I'm going to invent something.' It doesn't work like that, but what I tend to do is, if I have a buzz of an idea, then I'll do something about it. Sometimes I'm stirred by something I read in the newspaper, in which case I'll phone up a journalist and say 'Here mate, what do you think of this?'

Looking back over the years what would you have loved to invent?

The jet engine - I would have loved to have invented that.

I got a train up to Scotland the other day - I looked up how much a first class return up to Scotland for the day was - the fare was something like £315. If you were lucky you might get a cup of tea and a bun thrown in. For that sort of money I could fly from here to America, and that's all because of the jet engine. You can get to Belfast and back for as little as £25.

There's no comparison. Yes, it's inconvenient having to wait around at the airport for an hour, but so what. It's still so much quicker than other forms of transport. Plus you can still get a cup of tea enroute. And that's down to Frank Whittle. We take the jet engine so much for granted - what a brilliant invention. He ended up making no money out of it - and going to the Americans.

Do you think that any of the seemingly rather far-fetched technologies bandied about in sci-fi novels today will ever become a reality in future?

There's always talk about a perpetual motion machine - I honestly think there is such a thing. However, it's so far out in deep space it's not being effected by anything or affecting any thing near it at the moment.

Technology evolves so quickly. Take the mobile phone, for example, that is absolutely brilliant - there aren't many people now in Britain that don't have a mobile phone. And the things you can do on a mobile phone are so extraordinary - you can do a Google search on some mobile phones now. In fifty years time you'll be looking back and thinking: 'that was a load of rubbish compared with what we have today.'

How would you like to be remembered - what would be on your headstone?

Well, for services to Africa - for the third world really. Although, having said that, all my gizmos and gadgets are used so much more over here now. The other thing is that: 'It's better to be looked over than overlooked.'

I'm a very lucky man. Put it this way, whatever happens I've left a mark in the form of the wind-up radio. Hopefully, my name will be associated with the likes of Brunel and other inventors, which is wonderful.

Actually, it would be interesting to find out how many wind-up radios have been manufactured since I invented them, and how many wind-up torches and all the other gizmos and gadgets, and then calculate how many batteries would have been consumed and therefore what effect wind-up technology has had financially on the nation and also take into consideration the pollution avoided.

Pollution, in 50 year's time might be an even bigger problem than we already suspect it is. Those batteries in the soil may well be the cause of a disease or terrible illness when they come to the surface maybe in several hundred year's time.

* Hedy's credited invention was for a radio guiding system for torpedoes which was used in WWII. She supposedly gained the knowledge from her first husband, Fritz Mandl, a Viennese munitions dealer who sided with the Nazis. Hedy drugged her maid to escape her husband and homeland.

December 2008