I was tremendously saddened to hear of the recent death at age 80 of Trevor Baylis OBE, creator of the wind-up radio that helped millions in the developing world access essential and life-saving information.
His passing marks not just the loss of a great British inventor, it also offers an impressive life story that many of our business, science and technology schools could learn from when attempting to fulfil a need, take a chance, doggedly protect one’s own rights, or face down the seemingly impossible.
I am lucky to have counted Trevor as a friend after meeting and interviewing him several years ago ahead of him receiving one of many well-deserved honorary degrees. His passion for education and inspiring future generations of young people to take a chance was legendary.
His life story is both unconventional and fascinating. Born in 1937 in Kilburn, London, he grew up in Southall. At the age of 15 he was swimming for Great Britain, then found his first job at a soil mechanics laboratory where part-time day release allowed him to study mechanical and structural engineering.
By the age of 20 he began his National Service as a physical training instructor, during which time he swam for the Army and Imperial Services. Soon after this he become a professional swimmer, stunt man and entertainer.
Owing to the injuries he collected as a stunt player and diver, he always felt a kinship with the disabled which led him to invent and develop a range of products for the physically challenged under the Orange Aids brand.
In 1991 Trevor's gift for invention came into its own. Having seen a programme about the spread of AIDS in Africa, he set about developing the world’s first wind-up radio and by 1997, the Freeplay radio rolled off the production line in South Africa.
So what does all of this mean and what can we learn when it comes to the activities and character of our UK business and technology schools?
Embrace the impossible
Trevor regularly demonstrated how the seemingly impossible can, and should, be embraced and overcome. Whenever speaking to an audience he would proudly show off a typed letter he received from a Design Council scientist explaining in great detail why his initial idea of a clockwork radio would never work.
The sender had calculated that any dynamo-powered mechanism would need to weigh at least 40 pounds to work. At this point Trevor would produce for his audience a pocket-sized radio, proving that you shouldn’t always listen to the advice of so-called experts. There is value in determination and going places where others fear to tread.
Adopt a caring strategy
Many of our business schools have become home to students who have been re-categorised from learners to customers. This is clear from certain course marketing materials that place a clear emphasis on how much money and advantage can result from education and professional life.
Of course we all appreciate how employment and economic achievement is deeply interlinked with education, but how many universities – and particularly business schools - encourage opportunity where ethnicity, social status, housing, and mental health play a central role? We need to do better at promoting social conscience as a value-add.
I had the privilege of visiting Trevor’s home near Twickenham where he demonstrated many of his inventions for me, all of which had two things in common. The first was the genius behind the idea, the second was the huge heart of the inventor, as all of his devices were driven by an ultimate desire to help others.
Graduates need to complete their studies having learnt that there is more to the future than a narrow focus on profit and loss. There is no better way of rebelling against the current era of self-serving Trumpian economics than by demonstrating how our centres of business and technological excellence can act as a force for good and positive social change.
A necessary protection of ideas
As well as his delighting in uncovering solutions to a problem, Trevor was a determined protector of ideas and would frequently highlight the importance of patenting any new product.
This was rooted in his own experiences and strongly-held belief that he had not received a fair return for his inventions after having inventions repeatedly ‘adapted’ and used to great profit by others.
He argued that all school children should be educated about inventing and patents, and that intellectual property theft should become recognised and treated as a criminal offence.
There is justification to this and, I believe, our higher education institutions must take a lead in picking up the mantle of the work begun by ‘Trevor Baylis Brands’ which started in 2003 and has supported over 10,000 inventors protect and develop their ideas.
Trevor was a unique character who refused to adapt to his environment. His desire to help others led him to create inventions that made a difference to the lives of many who were less fortunate.
His greatest genius was to show that science and technology can be truly exciting. This is a legacy that I am determined the University of Gloucestershire and, I hope, many other higher education institutions will continue to convey.