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These Gadgets Use Some Old, Reliable Sources of Energy

February 15, 2001|GREG MILLER |

In California--the land of rolling hills, rolling waves and, these days, rolling blackouts--the only reliable, cheap source of energy at the moment might be your own muscles.

With that in mind, we tested a new generation of gadgets based on some of the oldest mechanisms in technology: springs, cranks and levers you operate by hand.

It turns out that self-powered radios and flashlights already were enjoying renewed interest even before the Golden State's energy crisis. The windup gadgets reviewed here have been showing up on shelves in such retail shops as Restoration Hardware, REI, Brookstone, Sharper Image and Eddie Bauer.

The devices started catching on in the months leading up to 2000 and its notorious computer glitch, which produced more panic than actual problems. But store managers said the gadgets continue to sell well, especially among people who appreciate environmentally friendly products and clever engineering.

We tested four devices: two flashlights, one radio and one box that combines both. They range from $10 for a Russian-made flashlight to about $100 for the radio/flashlight combo.

Overall, the performance of the products was impressive. Two devices--a portable radio and flashlight manufactured by a company called Freeplay--were gems, products that combine uncommon elegance and efficiency. The combination box, also made by Freeplay, was functional but clunky. Only the Russian flashlight was disappointing--tiring to operate, noisy and not worth the $10 it cost.

Freeplay S360

The most impressive gadget of the bunch was the S360 self-powered radio by Freeplay (, a London-based company that is the leader in this hand-powered corner of the technology world. It costs $70, weighs just over 2 pounds, produces good sound and comes in a smooth, sleek plastic case.

Like all Freeplay devices, it is powered by a ribbon of carbon steel wrapped tightly around a spool. To wind the device, you pull out a fold-up handle and crank it about 60 times, which transfers the steel ribbon to a second spool. Release the lever and the ribbon slowly uncoils, turning a generator as it returns to its original spool.

Cranking the handle takes no more effort than reeling in a small fish. It takes about 60 seconds and stores up enough coiled energy to operate the radio for as long as 40 minutes, depending on the volume during playback.

The steel spring is only one of four power sources for this radio. It also comes with solar panels and rechargeable battery cells, and it can be operated with an ordinary, 6-volt AC/DC adapter (available separately).

In direct sunlight, the radio will operate on solar power. Turn the radio off and the unit will continue to collect solar power and store it in the battery cells, which can power the device for as long as 15 hours when fully charged. The springs also dump energy into the storage cells.

There is no CD or cassette player. But the S360 does have a headphone jack and comes in an assortment of colors. I recommend the clear plastic version, because it exposes the workings of a radio that is as mesmerizing to watch as it is pleasant to listen to.

Freeplay 20/20

A close cousin of the S360 is the Freeplay 20/20 flashlight, which is about the same size and uses the same cranking mechanism. It too is encased in smooth and curvy plastic, available in five colors.

The flashlight costs $60, considerably more than you would pay for a comparably sized, battery-powered flashlight at a hardware store. But the Freeplay is a unique bit of engineering. Everything about it is designed to maximize efficiency.

Instead of an ordinary bulb, it comes with one incandescent, xenon-filled bulb and three light-emitting diodes. The xenon bulb, the device's brightest light source, operates when the battery is charged. But when the device is operating on hand-cranked power, only the LEDs, which consume less energy, light up.

When the battery is fully charged--from an included AC/DC adapter--the flashlight will shine as long as 45 minutes. When the battery is drained, the steel crank mechanism provides 10 to 15 minutes of light. The beam from the LEDs isn't very powerful but would suffice in an emergency.

My only complaint with the 20/20 I tested was that the lens was loose and kept falling off. Instead of equipping the light with a lens that screws on securely, Freeplay built it with a lens that has slots that twist around a pair of screws. For an expensive flashlight designed for service in emergencies, this seemed a troubling flaw.

Freeplay Plus

The $100 Freeplay Plus combines components from the radio and flashlight in one box, and then adds a few extras. In addition to AM and FM radio, for instance, the Plus also handles shortwave frequencies.

The light on the unit detaches, remaining tethered to the power source by a 6-foot cord, so that it can be strung to the top of a tent without moving the radio.

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