Mechanical clocks have existed since the 1300's and early last century, direct wind-up power was the only way to start your car - but only in the last decade has the seemingly obvious connection between wind-up energy generation and power reliant modern devices been made. British inventor Trevor Baylis saw the benefits of developing a wind-up radio for third world countries in 1991- his direct inspiration was to help combat the spread of AIDS by providing a means to transmit vital information about the disease to areas where no electricity was available - and the idea was first commercialised in 1996 when Freeplay released its wind-up radio.
Baylis's prototype wind-up radio operated by means of a coiled spring which powered a generator through a series of gears and played for 14 minutes after being wound for 30 seconds, but the latest models incorporate rechargeable batteries which allow the radio to be charged at any time - not only when its in use. The Freeplay Energy range also includes combination torch/radios, a short wave version and systems that incorporate solar power, batteries, or AC/DC adaptors as well as wind-up energy. The latest radios deliver around 50 minutes of operating time when fully wound which takes 60 turns.
Freeplay Energy has sold over three million units since its beginnings, and over 150,000 of these have gone to countries in the developing world - most of these through the assistance of government and aid agencies - and although the units are still relatively expensive there is a continuing push to make this technology count where it's needed most.
Sony and Phillps have entered the wind-up radio market and Motorola have teamed up with Freeplay to develop a wind-up mobile phone charger that offers 5 minutes of talk time for 45 seconds of winding. The product is designed to work with all Motorola phones and will be available in the US later this year. There are no plans for an Australian release as yet.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg for wind-up energy - mobile phones, MP3s, laptops and scores of other devices become far more energy efficient as well as critical to our daily lives. Products based on the Motorola Freecharge concept are already beginning to emerge from elsewhere and British company Atkin Design and Development have produced a next generation 'wind-up battery' that uses a supercapacitor instead of a rechargeable lithium battery. When this innovation was adapted to the wind-up radio, Atkin Design in conjunction with Sony produced a unit that plays for 90 minutes after one minute of winding.
The Freeplay range is available in Australia through Multi-powered products (www.multipoweredproducts.com.au) and the basic radio unit costs AUS$104.50