The dawning of the age of invention

27th June 2003 at 01:00
Britain has a proud history of inventors and inventions. The last century alone produced Christopher Cockerill's hovercraft, Alan Turing's early forays into computerisation and Frank Whittle's jet engine. Even the humble ring-pull, the opening device which revolutionised the canned-drink market, was a British invention, designed by British Rail catering.

There is evidence that the British are among the most creative people of the world. Why is it, then, that inventors get such a rotten deal in this country? Time after time, our most ingenious thinkers are sidelined or ignored while their ideas are quietly shelved or, worse still, stolen.

No one would listen to Cockerill, Turing and Whittle and, as a result, Great Britain Plc made no use of the hovercraft, ensured that we had no jets in the Second World War and helped drive Turing to suicide. British Rail, meanwhile, failed to patent the ring-pull, thereby losing millions that Britain's railways now desperately need.

The establishment is against inventors, seeing them as "oily rags", in contrast with the artists and designers it lionises. The legal system is hostile, too. The laws of patents and intellectual property are so complicated and expensive that ordinary individuals would rather give their ideas away than go through the torture of getting them turned into reality.

The world of business is also hostile, as I know from my own inventions.

Even my most famous design, the clockwork radio, struggled to find anyone to take it seriously. James Dyson, the inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, could have gone under if he had not had thousands of pounds available to help him to fight off Hoover in the courts.

We need a culture change, and this is why I want to see inventors and inventing put on to the national curriculum. At primary school, children need more freedom to explore technical problems and their solutions, whether that means playing with Meccano or models, or seeing how basic machines work.

At secondary school they must also be taught that their ideas can be valuable. I want them to learn about the inventors of the past, how they came up with their answers - and who stole or exploited them.

Some people might object that the curriculum is already overcrowded. But it must be possible to give inventors a presence in the existing subjects without making too many changes.

Why not, in addition, have a GCSE or an A-level in invention? Kingston university has just started a degree course in the subject. Children and teenagers everywhere are coming up with good ideas on their computer keyboards. But there is little chance that those ideas will be developed.

We also need an infrastructure to support young entrepreneurs, helping them compete with expensive lawyers and shark-like financiers. And this is where the universities come in.

They have the legal and engineering experts on hand and have become well-used to developing their own inventions for commercial gain. Now I want them to lend a helping hand to others. Through the Trevor Baylis Foundation, I am working with a number of universities in the UK to establish centres for invention.

Essex and Southend universities have already opened "Baylis Breakout Areas" - confidential studios where, for a small fee, inventors and commercial operators can have their discussions and agreements videotaped and stored in case of a future dispute. This development should save thousands of pounds each time in legal bills and I aim to see them established across the country.

I failed the 11-plus and, when I left school, people thought I was "thick as two short planks". Yet, now I have a list of honorary degrees as long as my arm. I don't want the inventors of tomorrow to have the same struggles that I did. We must make room in the curriculum for children to be creative, and then we have to encourage them when they come up with intelligent solutions.

Today I am calling on the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, to put invention on to the national curriculum. Inventors have been the economic lifeblood of these islands, Mr Clarke, so are you prepared to help?

Trevor Baylis was talking to Nicholas Pyke. There are more details of the campaign on Post your views on

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