Conversations to spark ideas and change lives

The Million Mile Light

It’s not every day I get to chat with a real-life inventor. A couple of weeks ago I met up with Tom Lawton. Tom devises and makes useful and beautiful things. I’d had a peripheral involvement in one stage of a recent invention, his Million Mile Light, which is being trialled at two schools, one of which is local to me. I was intrigued to meet Tom and find out more about what drives his passion, and how he gets going on his projects.

Over tea, Tom told me that his ideas often start with a conversation. And it was a conversation that began on Twitter that helped bring his latest creation into being. His Million Mile Light is a small, long-lasting, attachable light that is powered by body energy. And while in the UK it’s to encourage kids to walk to school, for kids further afield, it is a light that will undoubtedly save lives.

So it all began when Tom tweeted out for help — who could support him to make his lights? The tweet was spotted by my husband Ian who suggested he contact Michael Woodford MBE of the Safer Roads Foundation.

The Foundation agreed to support the project. Because of Michael Woodford’s connection with Southend, it was proposed a school in the area be one of the two trial schools (the other one is in Wiltshire, local to Tom). Chalkwell Hall Infant School was chosen, where I’ve been a governor for the last six years. During that time I’ve been involved in trying to make the roads around the school safer for pupils, so it was good news that Chalkwell was selected as a test school.

There’s poetry in motion

And then one morning in late October Tom came to Essex to talk to the children about his project. Each child was given a light and accompanying storybook. Tom told me he wanted to inspire wonder in the children, and for them to think for themselves: “let’s walk today instead of taking the car.” There’s a poetry, Tom says, in the simple fact of our bodies that make the energy to power the light. He believes that such a beautifully uncomplicated concept engages the children, much more than a lecturing “walking is better” would.

By drawing on our imagination to see solutions differently, we can rethink how we intrinsically do things. It’s about making changes subtly, by the back door, rather of shouting about the benefits.

Lights to save lives

Long term the plan is to test the light at the two UK schools and see what tweaks need to be made. Do they get lost? Does it need to go on a belt? Or a hat? And then the real impact of the lights will be made when they are used in communities in towns in places like Uganda. Ton explained that roads are often built through communities, splitting homes from schools. It takes a while for pedestrian infrastructure, such as subways or bridges, to be built. And until that point, children often have to reach their school by dicing with death and crossing the equivalent of the M4. Not only that, it’s often in the dark.

Developing the light hasn’t been a straightforward easy process, but for a lifelong inventor, it’s a challenge he relishes. In fact, he couldn’t do it any other way. “My oldest son said to me, Dad, just put a battery in the light.” Tom admits it would have made the process a whole lot easier. But that wouldn’t sit with Tom’s ethos. And he adds, there’s nothing worse than giving a torch to an excited kid, who then is disappointed when it stops working.

And so it might be a more circuitous route, taking longer to get his projects to fruition — but it’s clear it’s important to him to do it his way. It’s as much about taking meaning from the process as it is about the end product itself. Tom prioritises being methodical, doing it right, testing and making changes along the way. And because it’s powered by human motion, not a battery, the Million Mile Lights will last 300 years.

An unswerving belief

Tom had the idea for his first invention whilst at college in the 90s: a programmable alarm clock. His projects are labours of love, borne in part from having grown up in the countryside, coupled with inspiration from his father, who himself was an aeronautical engineer.

So Tom makes things he wants to make. To fix a headache, to test himself. He’s currently manufacturing a mesmerising solar-powered sculpture that recently launched on Kickstarter. He’s been assembling each of the pieces by hand, which has involved fitting together 22,000-odd elements.

One thing that’s striking is his utter belief that things will turn out well. This is despite the challenges of making things from scratch and all the things that can go wrong. He says he doesn’t know when he’ll get success — and after all, he is in it for the long game — but he knows it will all come good in the end.

Tom’s next project is making a pilot for a new TV show. The premise involves him having a conversation with a well-known person. He’ll dig around a little under the skin to uncover what invention the person would like to see in the world. Then Tom will make the invention. Again, there’s that confidence that the idea for an invention will appear: “It’s the conversation that will spark the idea, I have no doubt it will work.”

I leave the meeting inspired, both by Tom’s enthusiasm but also by the fact of feeding my own curiosity and of getting a view on life that’s different to my own. Whether on Twitter or face-to-face, chatting to Tom is a reminder how a simple conversation can spark life-saving projects, and of what great things happen when people get together.


Zoë Sanders is a storyteller. Sign up here to receive my occasional newsletter of stories that have caught my eye.