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Wind-up radio (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

My wife gave me an unusual gift: A radio that runs off a spring. Its huge crank looks and sounds like a comedian's prop. Turn it fifty times, which takes about thirty seconds, and the radio runs for an hour. Why make such a thing in an age of batteries and electrical outlets?

The idea for this wind-up radio came to British inventor Trevor Baylis while watching a television program on the spread of AIDS in Africa. He learned the disease spread fast because of difficulties in communicating with remote villages. They lacked electricity to run radios - and also lacked batteries because they cost a month's wages.

So, this life-long tinkerer rushed to his workshop and designed a wind-up radio. He even built a working model using the spring from an automobile seat belt retractor. In a sense, the easy work was done, and the hard part was to come: To be successful an invention of this type had to be mass produced.

Baylis had to attract a manufacturer - and from them the tens or even thousands of dollars needed to purse patent claims worldwide. After filing for a patent in the United Kingdom an inventor has only 12 months to file international patents to protect his idea - a very expensive process.

Baylis submitted his idea to manufacturers everywhere - and got rejected everywhere. Even provoking one expert to tell him that the spring, which powered the radio, wouldn't work: It would weigh 100 pounds and run for only ten minutes. This expert suggested Baylis run the radio with human heat from "under the armpit." Instead Baylis took a gamble: He went public with his idea, risking that someone might steal it.

He pitched his idea on BBC TV. Within four days he struck a deal with a South African entrepreneur - no British or American manufacturer expressed interest. Today 300,000 of these radios bring news and vital information about HIV, and other health matters to an estimated six million people in Africa.

Today Freeplay Energy, the company making the radios, Freeplay Energy, is expanding their "low-tech" mission by moving into medical equipment. Since the infant mortality rate in Africa is often 30 times that of the Western world, they are focusing on equipment vital for neonatal care. For example, a fetal heart monitor that uses ultrasound to monitor how babies are doing in the womb.

And, it doesn't use electricity or batteries, but relies on a hand crank and a solar panel to generate energy - just like the radio my wife gave me as a gift. With one critical difference: In America wind-up radios and novelties, but in Africa, they can mean the difference between life and death.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises