Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Why do all these gadgets need batteries?

I remember entering a shop and asking for an alarm clock which did not need batteries. "You won't get any," said the shopkeeper with a grin. I remembered the alarm clocks we had at home when I was a kid. Winding it up was a daily task. We used to wind up our wrist watches at 9p.m. when Lotika Ratnam or Surajit Sen read out the english news on All India Radio. I remember an old wall clock gifted to us by our maternal grandfather. It has also been converted to a battery operated one. It is horrifying that we end up polluting the environment just because we need to know the time. Something gadgets like mobile phones and various news channels keep telling us on a 24x7 basis.

I remember seeing an interview of the British inventor Trevor Bayliss on BBC World Television. I was unlucky as I could not get to see the full interview. But the little I saw left me full of fascination for this man who knew the power of thinking out of the box. One of his inventions is the Wind up Radio. In 1993 Trevor saw a program on TV through which he came to know that the radio was one of the most effective tools in the anti-AIDS campaign in Africa. AIDS was spreading like wildfire throughout Africa and leaflets and newspapers and television campaigns were virutally useless. The radio was extremely effective but there was one drawback - the power supply to the radio. One needed batteries or electricity to use a radio. And these were in short supply in the countryside. If only one could manufactuer radio sets which did not rely on these conventional power suppliers. This set Trevor thinking and he conducted an experiment with a hand brace, an electric motor and a radio. The brace could turn the motor and supply enough electricity for the radio to run. When he added a clockwork mechanism with a spring he saw that the radio could play as the spring unwound.His first prototype needed two minutes to be wound up and ran for fourteen minutes. The Windup Radio had been invented. A corporate accountant named Christopher Staines and South African entrepreneur Rory Stear ecognized the potential of the product and they set up BayGen Power Industries in Cape Town. Funding was provided by the Liberty Group. Disabled people are being used to assemble the radio sets. All in all a win-win situation. The disabled who work with Baygen earn their salaries and the rural folk of South Africa get to use a radio with zero running costs. The Freeplay radio was awarded the BBC Design Award for Best Product and Best Design in 1996. Trevor Baylis was at the centre of a lot of media attention due to this innovative invention.

While listening to Trevor being interviewed on television I was impressed by one of his statements. He said that he never buys or wears suits. According to him most of his friends have around 50 suits and each suit costs approximately 500 pounds. "This is a lot of money," said Trevor, "and could be put to better use." A quick calculation tells me that 50 suits at 500 pounds each comes to 25,000 pound sterling, this would be something like seventeen and a half lakh rupees. A huge amount indeed. Perhaps I am being a bit simplistic here but if the affluent all over the world could donate the cost of a suit to a worthy charity once a year a lot of money can be generated.

Ultimately it is all about thinking simply and effectively. One can make a positive difference to the quality of life through seemingly small tasks.

A few links:
Wind up Radio
From Inventors and Inventions
Different models of the Freeplay Windup Radio available for sale in the UK
From the BBC: Trevor picks his favourite invention
Why IT really winds me up by Trevor Bayliss


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