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First, it was a wind-up radio. Then came wind-up mobile phones. What’s next? ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK reports on new directions for old gadgetry.

Wind up mobile phones? Wind-up flashlights? As if wind-up radios did not seem crazy enough, we are suddenly being inundated with all manner of electronic goods that seem to contradict the very nature of electronics. Instead of relying on battery power or electricity, they rely on good old hand power, or rather the clockwork energy that comes with winding up a spring and then allowing it to unwind.

That’s all very well if you’re trying to recreate 18th century toys. But what business does clockwork power have barging in on the 21st century? For an answer, we have to go back a mere ten years.

Back in 1993, inventor Trevor Baylis was watching a TV show about the spread of AIDS in Africa, and learned that in many parts of the continent radio was the only means of communication. But even a basic radio represented a major obstacle: the cost of batteries.

That simple concept set in motion a train of thought that eventually nudged him into his home workshop. A series of experiments led to a clockwork radio prototype that had to wound up for two minutes and ran for 14 minutes.

It took a big break, however, of the kind that many inventions need before they revolutionise the world: in April 1994 his Freeplay clockwork radio was featured on on the BBC programme “Tomorrow’s World””.

Among those who were convinced of its appeal were British corporate accountant Christopher Staines and South African entrepreneur Rory Stear. They in turn found an enthusiastic backer in Hylton Appelbaum, then head of The Liberty Life Group in South Africa, who saw the relevance of the product for a country where so many people do not have access to electricity.

The following year Staines and Stear, with Liberty backing, set up BayGen Power Industries to manufacture the Freeplay radio near Cape Town. And in June 1996 the Freeplay radio was awarded the BBC Design Award for Best Product and Best Design. By 1997, the Freeplay Radio 2 could run for an hour with just 30 seconds of winding. Aside from meeting the Queen and Nelson Mandela, Baylis was awarded the OBE.

The rest, however, is not the proverbial history one might expect.

Instead of the clockwork radio becoming the saviour of Africa, it has become a sought-after and even fashionable gadget that, if nothing else, makes for a magnificent conversation piece.

In the process of overcoming the design problems inherent in relying on clockwork rather than battery power, the designers created a radio that would provide cheap power, but the device itself was hardly cheap. At around R450 for the cheapest model in South Africa, and up to R800 elsewhere in the world, it is out of reach of most of the world’s poor.

Yes, they are used throughout Africa – but not by the poor. Mostly aid workers and representative of non-governmental organisations – i.e. people with budgets and expense accounts – find the radios invaluable in receiving news even when they are cut off for months at a time from fresh supplies. In some cases, such as a European Union donation to Malawi and a World Bank purchase for Rwanda, thousands of the radios are presented to the poor on an aid basis.

However, Rory Stear, now chairman and CEO of FreePlay Energy Group, points out that countries like India have daily power outages: “”Even if you’re a billionaire, you’ll need some kind of self-sufficient and reliable energy device when the lights go out.””

The emergence of new appliances using the same technology is no accident, either, he says.

“”We’re not just in the radio, flashlight and cell-phone charger business, we’re in the energy business. We always ask ourselves, ‘What else can we do with this technology?’

“”We’re not just a business: we’re a business with a soul. We’re creating a whole new industry that can improve people’s lives, whether they’re in Los Angeles or Lagos.””

Co-branding and distribution deals have been signed with Motorola and Swiss Army Brands, among other, and their products are featured in executive gifts pages of business magazines and the gadgets pages of lifestyle publications.

While this may not be what Trevor Baylis had in mind for his invention – nor indeed why Nelson Mandela himself was so enthusiastic for FreePlay – it has meant that the invention has finally proved itself commercially.

With more than 3-million of the handsets in circulation, it is natural that other brands of wind-up radio have followed.

Royal Philips Electronics launched a windup radio for mountaineers this year, and has sold 3,000 of them for $20 a time in India.

But why stick to radios? If you can generate power for a radio like clockwork, surely you could do it for other devices? Why not the battery itself? That would open the way to wind-up power for any battery-powered device.

That was the way FreePlay saw it too, and they teamed up with Motorola to produce the world’s first clockwork powered mobile phone charger. Retailing at around $69, it is as unaffordable to the masses as the radio, but is a boon for outdoors enthusiasts. The FreeCharge Power Generator takes 45 to 60 seconds of winding for every 3 to 5 minutes of talking time. Being physically fit helps. At the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in January, it took the top award in its category, as did a wind-up flashlight co-branded with Coleman.

The concept is already tried and tested, with Nelson Mandela himself having opened the factory that first produced battery-free torches in South Africa in 1998. The first prototypes provided four minutes of powerful beam when wound up fully, and could also be charged through conventional electricity – provide a beam for six hours.

FreePlay has plenty of competition nowadays. In the wind-up battery stakes, it was environmental damage rather than poverty that sparked engineer Howard Atkin’s imagination.

The fact that 400 million batteries are imported to the UK each year, most of which end up in landfill sites at great cost environmentally and financially, was incentive enough for the founder of Atkin Design and Development (AD&D), based in northern England.

The power unit comprises a gearbox made from lightweight advanced materials, coupled with a super-efficient generator. Purpose-designed electronics control the rate of winding and the power input to the energy-storage system.

The unit can be configured to fit into most electric goods, and can be powered by the most unlikely activity – even through the sole of a shoe, or a walking stick. Mobile phones, radios and torches can be charged by hand in seconds, but those are only the most obvious applications. It has been successfully tested on razors, personal CD players and toys.

Research and development has been partly funded through a government-sponsored funding prize from Smart (small firms merit award for research and technology). AD&D has built three working prototypes to demonstrate the technology: the wind-up radio, the wind-up mobile phone and the wind-up torch.

The two-band radio, built in conjunction with Sony has an energy store and attached electronics. Simply by winding the hand generator attached to it by a short detachable cable for 60 seconds, enough energy is stored for the radio to play for 90 minutes.

The adapted Motorola phone with a similar system operates for two hours in standby mode and delivers 10 minutes of talk time for every 60-second winding.

Howard Atkin insists that the only similarity that the new system shares with existing mechanical wind-up devices is hand-power generation. Otherwise it is completely different, both in terms of longevity of use and breadth of application.

What’s next for clockwork? Anything from wind-up computers to crop sprayers to landmine detectors.

“”A mobile phone, or radio, which has the power to bridge ten thousand miles, shrinks to a useless three inches of plastic the second its battery dies,”” says Vaughan Wiles, Business Development Director of FreePlay. “”There are more dead flashlights in the world than living ones. Electronics products are incredibly dependable – until the battery dies.””

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