UK mourns death of ‘classic British inventor’

Radio ga ga: Baylis won an OBE for his inventions as well as praise from Nelson Mandela.

Is the age of the maverick inventor over? Trevor Baylis: circus performer, stuntman and inventor of the wind-up radio has died. Some say eccentric engineers like him are facing extinction.

“I had a life and I lived it to the full”, said Trevor Baylis not long before he died. “It’s nice to think I’ll be leaving behind more than a brass plaque on a bench.” Indeed the legacy of the celebrated inventor, who passed away on Monday, will be felt in the many life-changing inventions he built.

He is most famous for creating the wind-up radio — an idea Baylis got from a documentary which claimed that educational broadcasts could help fight AIDS in Africa. The revolutionary device works anywhere without the need for mains electricity.

Baylis also improved the lives of disabled people with user-friendly tools like foot-operated scissors, and also devised wackier gadgets like trainers which could charge a mobile phone (which he demonstrated by trekking 100 miles over the Namibian Desert).

Such diverse creations stemmed from a truly unique life story. He left school at 15, and spent time in the circus performing Houdini-esque underwater escapes and high dives into swimming pools. Baylis only became an inventor after losing a bet.

Yet he now joins a pantheon of inventors who have lit up the course of history — from Nikola Tesla and his harnessing of electricity, to Thomas Edison who developed the light bulb. But by some measures, this era of individual mavericks driving innovation is coming to a close.

From analysing the rate of mentions in newspaper articles, economist James Bessen concludes that older inventors like Edison achieved far greater fame and recognition than their modern counterparts.

Bessen thinks this could be because “modern innovation is more collaborative”, suggesting that young engineers are more likely to work for big corporations than strike out alone.

Furthermore, the fundamental way innovation happens is changing. A study found that, compared to the 19th century, modern inventions are far likelier to come from combining existing technology in novel ways rather than creating something entirely original.

So is the age of the maverick inventor truly over?

Eureka!

Of course not, say some. In fact, Now there are more maverick inventors than ever before. With the internet making information accessible to all, everyone has the resources to build, create and code. Furthermore, this creative spirit has diverse avenues. Where the Victorians obsessed over engineering, modern creatives invent life-changing apps.

But that is part of the problem, respond others. Everyone is obsessed with gadgets and digital technology, and what is classed as “innovation” is often just an update on old models and software. Rather than Silicon Valley drones and start-up clones, we need proper visionaries to develop truly original ideas.

You Decide

  1. What is humanity’s most important invention ever?
  2. Does being an inventor still count as a proper job?

Activities

  1. As a class you have one minute to think of as many famous inventors as you can. Write down your ideas on the board. Are most of the people you thought of living or dead? If you had to choose one person as the world’s most important inventor, who would you choose?
  2. What is the one thing in the world that you cannot do without? Research how that item was invented. Can you put its creation down to just one person? How do you expect the item to change in the future?

Some People Say...

“You don’t have to be a genius to be an inventor.”

Trevor Baylis

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Trevor Baylis died at the age of 80 after living for more than 40 years in a house he built for himself near the river Thames in London. Despite his fame, Baylis claims he never made money from his wind-up radio invention due to a patent loophole — meaning that other people could make and sell his invention without his permission.
What do we not know?
It is difficult to appraise the true “originality” of different inventions. For example, Baylis himself described his inventing process as “modifying everyday things a little”. The same applies for historic inventions too. For example, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was in many ways an extension of the older telegraph machine.

Word Watch

Wind-up radio
Named by the Radio Times as one of the 50 greatest British inventions of all time.
Disabled people
According to a Department of Health booklet, there are 22 different medical conditions which have been made more bearable thanks to his inventions.
Losing a bet
The wager was whether he could invent an aid for the disabled in less than half an hour. It took him 40 minutes.
Pantheon
A group of famous or important people.
Nikola Tesla
Serbian-American inventor (1856-1943). His innovations helped develop modern remote controls, electric motors and X-ray machines.
Developed
Edison is often said to have “invented” the light bulb, but this view is widely discredited. Edison’s light bulb is generally seen as an innovation on existing technology. For more details see the link from The Atlantic in Become An Expert.
Greater
Thomas Edison received 4,709 mentions in The New York Times during his life. By contrast, Steve Wozniak, who built Apple’s first computers, was mentioned only 144 times (as of 2001).
Study
“Invention as a Combinatorial Process: Evidence from US Patents”, by Hyejin Youn, et al.

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