Is this the birth of a fad? Without so much as a prototype to look at, electronics-store owner Bob Crane ordered several thousand. The product? A $60 flashlight powered by a hand-turned crank. "I have no idea how it will really go, but I've had a lot of requests from customers who want a [batteryless] flashlight," says Crane, co-owner of C. Crane Co., a Fortuna (Calif.) electronics store. "If that's any indicator, it will be a huge product innovation."
The flashlight is scheduled for official introduction in January by BayGen, a South African manufacturing and marketing company that has been making windup radios for more than a year. The radios retail for $70 to $120 in camping and radio stores and at yuppie trading posts such as the Nature Company. "We're trying to start a whole new industry: personal power generation," says BayGen CEO Chris M.L. Staines.
Crazy? The folks at General Electric Pension Trust don't think so: They invested $10 million in BayGen's power-generation project. In addition to pumping in cash, GE has helped with engineering talent. "BayGen wanted to see if we could contribute intellectual capital and enhance the investment," says Lionel M. Levinson, manager of electronic and optical materials at General Electric Research & Development Center in Schenectady, N.Y.
The BayGen crank winds up a spring that spins gears that turn a generator to power the circuit board of the radio or the bulb of the flashlight. Patented electronics have enabled the flashlight--and the radio before it--to put out a smooth flow of power and eliminate much of the friction that has dogged windup products in the past. When you crank up one of these radios, it plays at a consistent volume and quality with no power surges for about an hour at a time. Winding up a flashlight provides about only four to five minutes of light. This limited usage makes it unlikely that windup gadgets will replace their battery-powered counterparts. But they're good for emergencies.
BayGen has more in store. It's working on cellular phones and has even powered a low-tech computer for 20 minutes via a crank. Another great leap--forward?--for technology.