Trevor Baylis – inventor yes, entrepreneur no

UPDATED: see end of post

Something needs saying about Trevor Baylis following his recent claims to be broke, living in poverty, and to have never made money out of his wind-up radio invention.

I’ve never met Trevor, but know plenty of people who have. Opinions about him are mixed, it has to be said, though no one doubts his enthusiasm for invention and inventors.

He’s almost certainly the best-known living British inventor, but perhaps only because he has never appeared to be anything else. The other contender, James Dyson, is now known primarily as an industrialist, saying relatively little about invention, preferring to advocate more innovation-oriented design and engineering education. (Call it invention by a different route.)

Both came to public notice as inventors. One is now a multimillionaire and major employer, the other may have to sell his house to make ends meet. It could be argued that Baylis ‘kept the faith’ while Dyson didn’t. But which is the better role model for future inventors? I’d say Dyson, by a mile.

Trevor Baylis claims to have invented over 250 products, but where are they? He may be brim full of ideas, but having ideas is never enough. It’s what you do with them that makes the difference, and Trevor seems to admit that he lacks business skills.

I don’t want this to be perceived as a hatchet job. As a media personality, Trevor is a breath of fresh air. He can usually be relied on to make sensible, forthright comments about invention. Messages need getting across, and few people can get them across better than him.

But what troubles me in this instance is that he appears to link his own plight to a failure of government to help inventors retain control of their inventions.

While it grates to have successive governments ignore invention yet praise innovation (can they not see any connection?), Trevor’s failure to profit from his own invention may have more to do with technology moving on than with companies ‘tweak[ing] his original design’.

His name is associated with wind-up radios, but his patent was for a clockwork wind-up radio. Wind-up technologies now charge batteries, not springs. The probable truth is that Trevor didn’t see that coming, or didn’t improve his technology to meet the challenge. That (for once) isn’t the government’s fault. It’s a mistake James Dyson has never made, because he knows that success in both business and innovation depends on leading the field, not letting it overtake you.

Perhaps the lesson to take away from this sorry tale is that the hallmark of a successful inventor is that he or she doesn’t stay an inventor for very long. Being an entrepreneur takes over. And maybe that’s the way it should be.

UPDATED: I was wrong about Trevor’s patent for a clockwork wind-up radio. It appears that Trevor Baylis has never held a patent for anything. He has a total of three UK-only patent applications in his name – GB2165192, GB2304208 and GB2262324 – but none went beyond application stage. Two relate to his clockwork radio, the third to an accessory for wheelchairs.

That’s an odd state of affairs for an inventor so widely assumed to be an authority on IP protection, and whose autobiography ends with the line: ‘May all your dreams be patentable’. 


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