From One Man's Island: A Royal Academy for Inventors?

By Bridgman, Joan | Contemporary Review, February 1998 | Go to article overview
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From One Man's Island: A Royal Academy for Inventors?


Bridgman, Joan, Contemporary Review


Trevor Baylis is a man gripped by a big idea. Like Martin Luther King, he has a dream, a dream that there should be a Royal Academy for Inventors. Trevor is the man who has caught the public imagination with his invention of the clockwork radio, powered by the human hand. Given his tenacity, current high profile and capacity for creative and surprising action, I wouldn't put it past him to achieve his dream. I went to 'interview' him recently, hardly an interview really, more of a chat with a friend, having been an astonished observer of his extraordinary life longer than either of us care to remember. I have dined out for years on stories about Trevor. Suddenly, I found myself invited to be a guest on television's This is Your Life: the subject of the programme was to be my old friend. The production team waylaid him at the gates of Buckingham Palace after he had been presented with the OBE, or 'Other Buggers' Efforts' as he terms it, for humanitarian services. His great invention had brought him fame and fortune, but success had not come easily and his difficulties in getting manufacturers to accept and produce his radio have made him determined to change the system so that good ideas are not stolen, ignored, or driven abroad, as is so often the case.

He lives on an island in the middle of the Thames, Eel Pie Island. It was my bad luck that the day ! visited, the old arched bridge was caged and padlocked, plastered with dire warnings and the new one not finished. The Thames was in an ugly mood - it was the day some wretched rowers, trying to crack some record for completing the length of the river starting from Lechlade, actually chucked in their oars. A little open dinghy appeared from the opposite bank and I was ferried across the Styx by a Charon, muffled against the wind, and to continue the mythic allusions, when I entered Trevor's house I was met by wildly barking Cerberus, Trevor's dog, Monty, who had upstaged everyone on the set of the television programme by hurling himself at his master and all those present.

Trevor designed and built his house entirely by himself and for himself. One enters through his workshop, fitted with every conceivable tool, including a lathe. Next, one skirts an indoor ground floor heated swimming pool, so warm it heats the entire house, then through a sitting room with squishy sofas and large views of the Thames, unseen on this day because of the steam from the pool, and on up the stairs to the office-cum-bedroom, lined neatly with box files. Here again there are big sliding doors leading onto a large Astroturf deck overlooking the river and, from this greater height, commanding even more splendid views. This is a summer party area. There is a barbecue, garden furniture, a parasol and an empty champagne bottle, all today lashed by the wind. Why has Through the Keyhole not featured this place? 'Who lives in a house like this?' asks Loyd Grossman in this TV programme. All the clues are here: the interest in machinery, the do-it-yourself workshop, the importance of swimming, the possibility of watersports on the Thames, all the evidence of a gregarious bachelor fond of casual entertaining - only Trevor, is the answer. The house is custom-made for its occupant, tailored to his needs more exactly than Bill Gates's vast complex in America, a mute witness to the pragmatic thinking of its designer. The house is important because it exemplifies the Baylis approach to every problem including that of living space. What are the needs? How to fulfil them? Conventional thinking is cast aside in favour of servicing an individual lifestyle. Just think, there is no lawn to mow!

The idea for the clockwork radio came to Trevor while watching a programme on the spread of Aids in Africa - as he says he could have been watching Come Dancing. The programme stressed that the disease was spreading fast because of ignorance and difficulties in communicating with remote villages where there was no electricity.

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