Tim Hunkin is a cartoonist, for fourteen years he authored a weekly strip for the Observer titled ‘The Rudiments of Wisdom‘, in which he poured over facts on the inner workings of everything. That was back in 1973.
He’s also an engineer and an artist, he’s built public artworks (such as the water clock in Neal’s Yard, near Covent Garden) and runs two penny arcades filled with funny home made arcade machines. The Novelty Automation in London, and The Under the Pier Show in Suffolk.
In addition, he’s the author of ‘The Secret Life of Machines‘, aired between 1988 and 1993 on Channel 4. ‘The Secret Life of Machines’ was an educational television series that stemmed from his previous work on the comic strip. He co-presented it with Rex Garrod.
During its eighteen episodes Tim and Rex enquire over the functioning of all kind of machines — from appliances like vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, refrigerators, the television all the way to the central heating system and the combustion engine.
They take everything apart, they slice stuff in half, they fiddle and break things in an attempt to see how these machines came to be, what kind of knowledge they rely upon, how they work or react when things go wrong.
It’s a pretty unique show, not merely informative. The episode on washing machines ends with a trembling pyramid of machines rescued from the scrapyard. The one covering the central heating system features a life-size working model of one which starts leaking water everywhere. In the secret life of the vacuum cleaner, piled up vacuums fitted with pyrotechnics fly and spark like rockets.
I watched them doing all of this and I couldn’t not notice how much fun they were having. The tribute Tim wrote in 2019 when Rex passed away gives a snapshot of how they worked together:
I learnt an enormous amount just watching him. He seemed to do everything in unconventional ways. When his guillotine got blunt, he didn’t send the blade away to be sharpened or even remove it from the machine, he just ran his angle grinder along the edge. Watching him use the lathe was particularly memorable. He always ran the spindle too fast and cut too deep, things I would never dare do myself, but it gave me a feel for the limits of what was possible. When things were going OK he always delivered a constant stream of bad jokes.
The days were always entertaining, he was so sociable there were always visitors and lots of tea breaks. Then there were the daily trips to Sackers, the local scrapyard. Here we would sift through the latest stuff to arrive at the yard and strip any parts that looked useful. The scrapyard was central to Rex’s life, he could never resist getting ‘useful stuff’ for free. Long before anyone talked about global warming and recycling, Rex just thought the scrapyard was a source of bargains and that companies were fools for throwing the stuff out. Perfectly working machine tools, full sheets of aluminium and stainless steel, hi tech factory automation modules, brand new milling cutters – we never knew what to expect, but there was always something.
All episodes are (or will be) available on Tim’s YouTube channel, with added commentary at the end of each video to review what’s changed since filming. ‘The Secret Life of Machines ‘ is the kind of TV production that I think today could solely exists on YouTube.
More than thirty years since it aired Tim is back with a new project, explaining things and making things. The new video series is called ‘The Secret Life of Components‘:
In the past, when people asked me how to learn practical skills, I’ve told them they just have to make things badly to start with but to keep going and they will improve. I made things badly for the first half of my life. However, I now learn a lot from watching practical youtube videos and realise that they can teach the sort of informal tips that used to be part of traditional apprenticeships. So I’m delighted to be contributing to this wonderful new learning resource! I hope my videos, each about 45 minutes long, are entertaining enough to be fun for beginners, but also detailed enough to be useful for pros.