Hardware Heroes: Tim Hunkin

If you were an engineering student around the end of the 1980s or the start of the 1990s, your destiny most likely lay in writing 8051 firmware for process controllers or becoming a small cog in a graduate training scheme at a large manufacturer. It was set out for you as a limited set of horizons by the university careers office, ready for you to discover as only a partial truth after graduation.

But the chances are that if you were a British engineering student around that time you didn’t fancy any of that stuff. Instead you harboured a secret dream to be [Tim Hunkin]’s apprentice. Of course, if you aren’t a Brit, and maybe you are from a different generation, you’ll have responded quizzically to that name. [Tim Hunkin]? Who?

[Tim Hunkin] is a British engineer, animator, artist and cartoonist who has produced a long series of very recognisable mechanical devices for public display, including clocks, arcade machines, public spectacles, exhibits and collecting boxes for museums, and much more. He came to my attention as an impressionable young engineer with his late 1980s to early 1990s British TV series  The Secret Life Of Machines, in which he took everyday household and office machines and appliances and explained and deconstructed them in an accessible manner for the public.

The human sewing machine, in glorious VHS quality.
The human sewing machine, in glorious VHS quality.

The show was a radical departure for TV programming with a technical subject, it did not gloss over any of a given device’s internal workings. There was nothing that was deemed to be beyond the comprehension of the masses, instead complex mechanisms or engineering concepts were explained through a combination of stripped down machines, working models, animations, period advertisements, and [Hunkin]’s knowledgable yet accessible commentary.

He was aided in this by his assistant [Rex Garrod], whose job we all coveted, and sometimes by a group of people to explain a machine by a human process. His demonstration of a sewing machine with four people performing the operations to lockstitch together a pair of expanded polystyrene sheets with rope serves as just one example.

The Secret Life Of Machines ran for three series, between 1988 and 1993. In a way it came at the perfect moment for such a show, in that much of the domestic appliances that are now computerised were then still mostly mechanical, so there was much more scope for a [Hunkin]-style deconstruction. We’ve included an episode at the bottom of this piece, but if you can’t find the rest with a YouTube search he’s put links on his website.


Divorce, [Hunkin]-style.
Divorce, [Hunkin]-style.
You will find his work today in public as the many automata and other mechanical spectacles that he has created over the years, many of which are on public display at museums, shops, and other locations. He has a YouTube channel on which you can see many of them in action, or if you’re up for a spot of tourism you can seek them out. They are mostly in the UK, but not all of them.

The best places to see [Hunkin] machines in one place though are his two arcades, Novelty Automation in Holborn, London, and The Under The Pier Show in Southwold, Suffolk. These are a [Hunkin] take on a traditional coin-operated amusement arcade, with a selection of automata and mechanical games that often have an air of biting social commentary about them. You buy a pot of tokens from the attendant, and are left to explore the machines for yourself.

It was a pilgrimage a group of us made to the London arcade that provided the impetus for this article. Among others there are such delights as “Pet Or Meat“, in which a wheel-of-fortune decides the fate of a cute and fluffy lamb, “The Small Hadron Collider“, in which scientists can battle a modified Pachinko machine for a Nobel Prize – watch for the ball-return mechanism on this one, the “My-Nuke” nuclear reactor which you must load with fuel, “Instant Weight Loss” which calculates and delivers a low-calorie diet, and “Microbreak“, a complete package sunshine holiday from the comfort of an armchair.

If you hadn’t heard of [Tim Hunkin] until you read this article, I’d suggest that you rectify that by seeking out his website, and by looking on YouTube for The Secret Life Of Machines. Only a small part of his repertoire could ever be squashed into a single Hackaday page. If you should find yourself with time to explore his work in real life, make the trip to one of the arcades or the many locations at which his other creations have been installed. And yes, should an advert ever appear for the job of being his apprentice, there might still be at least one 40-something engineer sorely tempted to leave her post at Hackaday.

Meanwhile it’s time to leave you with an episode of the TV show, picking one of which is an extremely difficult choice to make. Here’s the one that explores the topic of radio, which we hope you’ll enjoy.

The header image used in this piece comes from this YouTube video showing a [Hunkin] clock which you can find at the Exploratorium, in San Francisco.

Thanks [David] for the inspiration.

41 thoughts on “Hardware Heroes: Tim Hunkin

    1. Hmm, Yes, very addictive.

      even though I’ve re-wathed most of “secret life of machines” not too long ago I had not seen his website before.
      Some hours later…
      Wonderfull automata with all their simplicity and slanted humor.
      And some extra links via wikipedia:

      Damn, now I’ve just discovered he’s selling a dvd with 2h video of the stuff he build…

  1. I remember the TV series fondly and have had the pleasure of meeting Tim twice…he’s a really nice gentlemen with a great deal of engineering knowledge and experience. I would highly recommend going to see his work!

    1. Indeed, and quite possibly the best robot in its class ever. It came to my suffolk school growing up. He’d sat on it and ridden it around. On top of the wedge and self righting flipper it had a rear spike that could eject it from the robot wars pit and adjustable height ride allowing it to plane shavings from the arena floor, nothings getting under that. Tim Hunkin also did a BT Christmas lecture back when they were good and I was the 8 year old kid who stood up at the end and asked if he could have the recording Tim made of his voice on cellotape and iron filings demonstrating how a tape recorder worked. He took me up on stage and shook my hand, great guy.

    2. Indeed it is. However, self righting mechanisms were the last resort of those unable to make a robot that could work either way up, as ours (SMIDSY) could. :)

  2. Oh, so that’s who he is – I’ve seen some of the things at Southwold, sadly I didn’t go in to the amusement bit but did see the water clock and the “quantum tunnelling telescope” (didn’t even realise they were both done by the same person!)

  3. The “Secret Life” series was the best TV ever. A lot of the machines featured are now obsolete, so surely time to crowdfund a new series..
    Another Hunkin landmark worth a visit in London is the “secret life of the home” gallery hidden away in the basement of the Science museum

  4. I grew up in california,usa, and watched the secret life as a kid in the early 90s. It wasnt just a british thing. It could have been a pbs rebroacast of bbc stuff as they tend to do. I rewatched the whole thing a few years ago, still lots relevant, and yeah his animatronic tidbits in the show are pretty neat

      1. Back when Discovery/TLC/History were about science and facts instead of opinion and fake reality.

        I wish someone would take up re-showing UK science shows in the US again. PBS does some, but Discovery/History took that over and probably raised the cost so PBS doesn’t so much.

  5. Course, the really old Brits also remember Wilf Lunn. And Magnus Pyke. Then there’s Tomorrow’s World and Equinox too… Come to think of it, why is TV so crap nowadays?

    1. Heinz Wolf and “The Great Egg Race”? Forget Scrapheap Challenge.. TGR was hacking on TV before we even knew it was hacking..!
      I used to watch Secret Life of Machines on Channel 4 after school. [Jenny List] has this right – Tim and Rex deconstructed the things I wasn’t allowed to take apart at home!

    2. That’s just the natural conclusion of the evolution of TV programming, where as a testament to the narcissism and laziness of the human race we proved that all else being equal, the thing 99.9% of us would most like to watch is another human emoting as it goes through some hardship the viewer doesn’t have to. Hence all the survival shows, swamp shows, hillbillies, ice truckers, truck rescuers and, oh, every soap opera ever. Oh, and all the “science” shows that turn out to actually be dramatisations of someone’s life rather than actual, you know, science…

  6. Travelled to Southwold pier just to see his animatronics. Was reading a Make Magazine article about programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and though it had a Tim Hunkin vibe to it. Sure enough, the author was Tim. Definitely a fan.

  7. With the commercials removed and no end credits, episodes of SLOM (Secret Life of Machines) “just” fit on VHS promo tapes I dumpster dove from my small town car dealership’s dumpster. I still treasure the shoe box full of those tapes. Occasionally I rewatch the rather disjointed rips of them on my computer.
    If you are looking for a place to start- please watch either the Lightbulb or Vacuum Cleaner episodes.

    1. What does not exist online (unless it’s been rectified recently) is a copy of “The Car” episode without a horrible synchronization error that starts when it’s showing how a wrecked car gets pulled back into shape.

      The reason for that is, when the original broadcast tapes were digitized, whomever did them didn’t check to make sure the copies were all good. The NTSC and PAL DVD sets both have that corrupted episode.

      Without coming up with the cash to buy the original films (yes, films, TV shows back then were still shot on film then telecined to video) finding a good home video recording will be the only way to get a clean copy of that episode.

      So if you have a standard speed recording of that episode and it’s in any way decent quality, it could be digitized and bits of it spliced in to create a good copy of The Car episode. Even if you recorded it at a slow speed it would still be better than wavy colors and herky-jerky out of order fields in the later part of the episode.

      How much to buy the films? A few years ago, Tim Hunkin told me by email it would be $16K. Then they’d need to be digitized. Doing it that way would make it possible to get HD digital copies.

        1. Whomever does it would need to be within easy travel distance of the shop doing the film to digital transfer, to be ‘hands on’ with the process. Also, being in the UK would eliminate the possibility of a plane crash or sinking ship while shipping to another country losing the films forever.

          When I asked Tim Hunkin about it, Kickstarter was still only open to Americans, so it’s been a while. He should have the info on the company that currently has the films.

          We’d definitely want the UK edit as they were a bit longer than the USA edit.

          So, step 1. Contact Tim Hunkin and ask kindly for the go-ahead to launch a crowdfunding campaign to buy the Secret Life Of Machines films and have them high definition digitized.

  8. Let us not forget about his start in “The Rudiments of Wisdom”, a half-page comic strip that appeared every week in the Sunday paper the Observer. Drawn in his characteristic style, this explained some concept such as photosynthesis, and ended with a single frame giving an experiment you can do at home. The series has now been digitised, though the experiments have been removed:

    1. If you can track a copy down, that series was compiled into an encyclopedic volume called “Almost Everything There is to Know, by Tim Hunkin” and was probably my favourite childhood book. I’m saving my copy for my children and found a second-hand one for my godson a few years ago. Priceless.

  9. I have very good memories of that show and a few years back I found them on youtube and watched them all again and relieved my youth (well… a just a little part of it).
    Thanks you Jenny for this an article, now others can also experience the clear explanations of everyday technology. Some items may be outdated but most items have survived the test of time.

  10. Tim has over the years done quite a lot at the Exploratorium in San Francisco , and it was his writing about this that inspired me to spend a 6 week sabbatical working there with the exhibit development team, which in turn led to me being introduced to Tim later on. An inspiration to many of us 30 & 40 something British Engineers.

  11. Nice article Jenny. We spent a very interesting morning on Southwold pier a couple of years ago playing the exhibits. I also have many fond memories of the various TV shows.

  12. Hands down, one of the most interesting shows I learned from back when I was young. Take 5 was the theme music, and the intricate way he demonstrated how things work was amazing. Cheers!

  13. An absolute childhood hero of mine. Probably the main reason I got into engineering as a kid, and ended up working in Technology. I was lucky enough to meet him during a talk at the Institute of Making, a couple of years ago. I shook his hand. He probably thought I was a nutter, but I was a bit starstruck! It was fascinating to hear him talk about how he makes his machines. I must try to get to the Under-The-Pier-Show at some point. In the meantime, I can introduce my son to The Secret Life of Machines, when he’s a little older :)

  14. I remember his show fondly. It took 3 weeks for his news-paper-like poster of experiments to arrive in the post. First thing I did was take off the top polarizer off my digital watch, so only those with polarized sunglases could read the time. Legend and definitely pushed me towards engineering. I’m just surprised he’s still alive!

  15. Excellent TV series, I just finished watching all the SLOM youtube videos before seeing this post. Gonna have to watch them all again now. Didn’t know Tim Hunkin had a website, thanks for relaying the link. I particularly liked his happy habit of destroying the very machines he eviscerated in a big bonfire at the end of his later episodes as a tribute to the technology that created them. It’s a great pity most of the youtube videos only go as high as 240p, though. Even broadcast TV in the late 1980s, from which these videos were made, went higher than that.

  16. OMG – I LOVE this man, does he have a brother?!?!? With all the lovely and behind the scenes electronics these days, so much is taken for granted and to be “glitch-free!” Ha! Anyway, someone with a sense of humor and knowledge is indeed a rare individual. Wonder if there’s a patent for creating more like Tim? Hmmm, …

    Thanks for the shoutout for Tim Hunkin. I saw his clock at the Exploratorium and wondered.

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