When the little radio, built by disabled workers in South Africa and labeled as a gift for President Clinton, arrived at the White House parcel room, the Secret Service went into a tizzy.
They tried plugging it in, but they couldn't find a power cord. They looked in vain for a nook that held the batteries. Then they turned a crank on its side and the little radio came to life.Trevor Bayliss, its British inventor, said he conceived his windup radio to help combat the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. But his radio could also wind up making a huge impact in places where there is no electrical power and little money to buy batteries - but still a lot of ignorance.
"Even a superpower might appreciate a little low-tech power," Bayliss said ruefully when asked why he shipped a radio destined for use in the most poverty-stricken corners of the Third World to Washington via a supersonic Concorde.
Bayliss acted after a series of winter storms had struck the U.S. capital. "I conjured up this picture of Bill and Hillary with mittens and a mug of broth in the White House in the freezing cold with no power and thought they might like one of my radios to find out what's going on in the outside world," he explained.
Late last November, the first batch of radios came off a line at a factory in Milnerton, about 12 miles outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Output is now running at 20,000 units a month. But if all goes well, it is projected to climb to 1 million a year to meet rising worldwide demand.
The 1996 World Radio-TV Handbook calls the new radio "a marvel of traditional engineering designed to meet a specific need." In its tests, the Handbook found that the radio could tune in both shortwave and AM stations, as well as FM (in mono). It took a minute to turn the handle 60 times and fully coil the spring. They got 38 minutes of playing time before a rewind was needed.
Harrods, a posh London store, reports that the "BayGen Freeplay" sells well in its appliance department for the steep equivalent of $123. For every 100 radios sold by Harrods or by other European retailers, a dozen will be supplied for free to remote African villages.
Some technological breakthroughs - copiers and fax machines serve as prime examples - can languish for years until a corporate soul finally grasps their utility. That also proved to be the case with Bayliss's invention, which was spurned by the marketing mavens of several top firms before a production deal was struck with the help of South African President Nelson Mandela.
At the outer edge of technology, computer laptop road warriors are all agog at the prospect of a new zinc-air battery, to be made in a plant in Smyrna, Georgia, that can run a full-size notebook for up to 12 hours between charges.
One suspects, however, that in the larger scheme of things Trevor Bayliss's invention will spark a far greater impact by bringing the outside world for the first time into the lives of hundreds of millions of people.