A World Run on Windup
Trevor Baylis

New Generator Technology Brings Power With a Twist

British inventor Trevor Baylis may have started a windup revolution. (BayGen UK)


By Richard Gizbert
This is a story about power.
The power of an idea. Award-winning British inventor Trevor Baylis took the concept behind the common windup clock and applied it to radio technology, inventing the “clockwork radio.” 
     His goal was to provide a cheap, and accessible means of communication to people in Africa, where radios are the primary means of information distribution but electricity is scarce and batteries expensive. By making radio technology independent of electricity yet still reliable, the people in Africa would have access to information on preventive health care, relief and AIDS. 
     A South African company, BayGen, bought into the idea, but found the cost of the radio was too high for the African market. End of story? Hardly. BayGen began to build on Baylis’ idea, looking beyond radios, and beyond Africa. 
     In addition to the radio, BayGen developed a windup flashlight. Thirty seconds of cranking buys you seven minutes of light, courtesy of the same Baylis generator that powered the clockwork radio. BayGen found a market for its products under the “Freeplay” brand — mainly in developed countries, where the technology suits emergency preparedness kits, survivalist groups and a host of outdoor activities. Companies such as Innovative Technologies, a small Victoria, British Columbia, firm, have found markets for windup devices in North America. 

Power to Change Lives
The windup radio’s low-tech look is deceptive. The crank and the spring it’s connected to are simple enough; but there are a few high-tech bits that have transformed the basic idea into something that people would actually buy. 
     There’s a solar panel for sunny days, and electronics that store power and regulate the spring so that it only unwinds when necessary, preserving energy. The new radio plays for an hour, twice as long as the original model. 
     In 1996, BayGen began selling the windup radios worldwide; aid organizations like the Red Cross and the United Nations have also begun distributing them. 
     The Freeplay radio has been awarded the BBC Design Award for Best Product and Best Design. It’s no wonder: A windup generator that could connect to and power any battery operated device, anywhere, could significantly change the lives of many people who don’t have ready access to even simple technology. It also has far-reaching implications for technological development. There are plans to include windup technology in landmine detectors, talking books and even the upcoming Apple eMate 300 computer. “The technology is there and can be adapted to any product,” says Philip Goodwin, an industrial designer at BayGen. 
     The more of the radios built and sold in the developed world, the cheaper they become for the Third World. And that would be the realization of a simple idea that has since spun off into an industry. 

Christina Serkowski of ABCNEWS.com contributed to this report.

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