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Trevor Baylis speaks up for the 'lowly inventor'

'Ordinary men and women have the ability to change our lives, both socially and economically. And we treat them like dirt,' said British inventor Trevor Baylis, standing up for individual inventors the world over at a conference in Brussels on 3 May. Mr Baylis is best known...

'Ordinary men and women have the ability to change our lives, both socially and economically. And we treat them like dirt,' said British inventor Trevor Baylis, standing up for individual inventors the world over at a conference in Brussels on 3 May. Mr Baylis is best known for inventing the wind-up radio, intended primarily for developing countries. In 1991 he watched a television programme about the spread of AIDS in Africa. The programme emphasised that in many regions, radio was the only available means of communication, but the need for batteries or electricity made radio too expensive or too difficult to access. But Mr Baylis' journey from anonymous inventor to household name and recipient of the 'Order of the British Empire' (OBE) was not a smooth one. He patented his invention in 1991 and immediately sought funding. The UK's Design Council rejected him, with the reason: 'It is very unlikely that UK industry could enter profitably into a licensing agreement with this product. The major customers are third world countries which, with severe debts, would not be in the position to pay for this device. The extent to which component parts could be manufactured in the UK was also felt to be limited.' Speaking at the European Inventor of the Year conference, Mr Baylis laughed at those reservations, saying that he had made the radio in his garden shed with parts that he already had. Components were clearly not a problem. After many more rejections, the inventor's radio featured on a television programme, its potential recognised by a corporate accountant and South African entrepreneur. With funding from these two men, and South Africa's Liberty Life Group, BayGen Power Industries opened for business in Cape Town in 1995. A group of organisations representing disabled people became partners in the project, and disabled people now perform much of the production work. Mr Baylis faced 'so much rejection, so much humiliation', he says, but regards himself to be in fine company with persecuted inventors throughout the ages. He highlighted a number of fellow inventors and the troubles that befell them: Roger Bacon (magnifying glass, ideas on aircraft) was imprisoned by the Franciscans for novelties; William Lee (stocking frame) was refused a patent and died poor; John Kay (flying shuttle) had his idea pirated, was attacked, and died poor; James Hargreaves (Spinning Jenny) had his idea pirated and his house and machine attacked; John Harrison (marine chronometer) lived in poverty and spent years fighting the government for the prize money he was due; and Sir Christopher Cockerell (hovercraft) never made any money from his invention. Mr Baylis's favourite inventor was Frank Whittle, who created and demonstrated the first jet engine in 1937. 'Think how many lives could have been saved if people had listened to him,' said Mr Baylis, referring to the Second World War. 'He was my hero.' The inventor also alluded to the problems faced by women innovators, and those from ethnic minorities. Seeing his audience struggle to name any inventors from these groups, he said: 'Shame on you, you should be able to rattle off names like that.' Mr Baylis listed a few names himself: Hedy Lamarr, an actress by profession, patented a frequency switching system for torpedo guidance, which today enables wireless computer modems to be mobile and virtually un-locatable. It also makes mobile 'phone conversations secure from eavesdroppers. Black engineers and scientists have been responsible for inventions as diverse as the fountain pen, the traffic light, the lawn mower, the refrigerator truck, peanut butter, the blood plasma bag, the overhead power system for electric trains, and the gas mask. They have enjoyed very little of the recognition bestowed upon their white counterparts. Today's budding inventors, whatever their gender or race, do not find it easy to turn their idea into a product, and many of the problems gravitate around intellectual property (IP), Mr Baylis told his audience. He called for children to be taught about IP at school, and he appealed to patent lawyers to act with 'decency'. If someone approaches a lawyer with an idea, and the lawyer knows that the idea has already been patented, they should say so straight away, rather than sending a large invoice for providing the same information later on. 'You lawyers mustn't think 'grab, grab, grab',' he said. The inventor also called for the EU to support inventors seeking to defend their ideas. 'Give them their day in court against the large corporations,' he said. Believing that 'someone has to protect the lowly inventor', Mr Baylis launched his own company, Baylis Brands. The company aims to help inventors get their ideas to market. It currently evaluates more than 100 ideas every month, and more than 1,750 inventors have registered with it.