RIP Rex Garrod, Creator Extraordinaire

Earlier this month, the youth motocross champion, special effects creator, inventor, TV presenter, and Robot Wars competitor, [Rex Garrod] died at the age of 75 after a long battle with dementia. We do not often carry obituaries here at Hackaday, and it’s possible that if you are not a Brit you may not have heard of [Rex], but his work in the time before YouTube would have made him an international must-watch star had he been operating in the age of on-demand Internet video.

I first became aware of Rex when he appeared as assistant to [Tim Hunkin] on his Secret Life of Machines TV series in the late 1980s. He was the man whose job we all wanted, making the most incredible machines and operating them for our entertainment. Our Hardware heroes tribute to [Tim] has a picture of him operating the needle on a giant mock-up of a sewing machine, but he appeared in many more episodes. Of the many tributes to [Rex] that have appeared over the last few days it is [Tim]’s one that probably says the most about his appeal to our community. His propensity for picking up interesting parts from junkyards strikes a chord, and the tale of hugely overpowering car wiper motors by allowing them to be submerged in water is pure genius.

To a slightly younger generation he is best known for his appearances in the British Robot Wars series‘ with his Cassius series of fighting robots. He created one of the first really potent flipper robots in UK robotic combat, and incidentally the first effective self-righting mechanism. As one of the many members of the SMIDSY team that didn’t appear on the recorded TV series’ I encountered him only peripherally, but I remember his work being a major influence on SMIDSY’s run-any-way-up design. Meanwhile for a younger generation still he created the models for the popular children’s TV character Brum, an anthropomorphised scale-model Austin 7 car.

We’ll leave you with a couple of videos featuring [Rex]. The first is from The Secret Life of Machines, in which along with [Tim] he helps explain electronics from first principles, while the second is a fan-created medley of his Robot Wars appearances. Rest in peace [Rex], and thank you.

30 thoughts on “RIP Rex Garrod, Creator Extraordinaire

  1. Bummer, he was definitely an inspirational spirit and one of my heros that I have to say most on TV are not. I think PBS when I was younger was where I first recall Tim Hunkin and Rex Garrod Secret Life of Machines. Then when I found in recent years the episodes on Youtube I was excited and heard the catchy intro and cartoon sounds that I lady on the show who also appeared I think made (I might be wrong). Yeah… I feel the need for a cider drink… though will be OK with fresh juiced apples. Darn… I hate Alzheimer and always am suspicious of poisoning and other causation than natural… including the modern disclosed mild traumatic brain injuries from sonic and/or microwave and/or other beam forming weapons.

  2. Met him when competing in “Rex’s Robot Challenge”. He was a great bloke, critiqued our designs, talked about engineering and made a friend and I slide whistles out of twigs. Made a big impact on an 11 year old and will be missed!

    1. I met Rex a few times at his local airfield here in Suffolk (UK), back in the days when he was flying his Shadow. He always carried a cylindrical Neodymium magnet in his pocket (you knew when he was around, by the “clang” of the magnet sticking to something metallic as he walked past, and the “rip” of yet another pair of trousers). How he never got lost when flying with that magnet I’ll never know. He absolutely embodied, for me and many others, the true meaning of being an engineer, and will be sadly missed.

    2. I have fond memories of that show and from time to time I tend to watch them on youtube just for the fun of it.
      Just read the page written by Tim Hunkin (as mentioned in the link in the article above), a very nice homage.

      Rex thanks for all the things you’ve brought us.

  3. Someone needs to do a Kickstarter to buy the original films of The Secret Life of Machines series to have them HD scanned for a Blu-Ray release. Especially important to do this because the only available copies of “The Car” episode are corrupted due to a bad digitization for the DVD sets from the original broadcast tape. Nobody bothered to watch the episodes all the way through before sending the files out for DVD mastering so the bad video got missed on both the PAL and NTSC releases.

      1. And partway through The Car it starts having sync glitches that screw up the colour, then the field order inverts. It’s that way on ALL available formats, on disc or online, because all of them were sourced from the same screwed up digitization of the original broadcast tape, or possibly that tape is itself damaged.

        Other than scanning the original film or re-digitizing the broadcast tape (if it’s good), the only way anyone is going to get to see an uncorrupted version of that episode is if someone taped it off TV back in the day and still has the tape tucked away in a closet. In the USA it was on cable and satellite on Discovery Channel. A UK tape would be the better source due to higher vertical resolution and the episodes ran a bit longer over there due to editing for the US market to squeeze in commercials.

  4. The Secret Life Of Machines is one of the most genius pieces of TV ever made. God knows how it came to be, what the budget was – may have even run into the 10’s of pounds, but that didn’t matter because the show was carried by the two wonderful, weird, quirky presenters, with endless enthusiasm, imagination and a scant regard for OH&S. So happy that Rex was.

  5. Rex never sought the limelight. Actually that’s not accurate, pretty much actively avoided it and that was a shame, because he was clearly a really talented engineer. He always seemed much happier in a supporting role but he could present, and do it well.

    I’ve read he left Robot wars fairly early on over arguments with the producers about inconsistent and nonsensical safety rules, particularly as they were applied to other teams. He had a strong sense of what was fair. He was a truly great builder and not a great driver (at times a pretty awful driver).

    RIP Rex.

  6. I saw all the episodes of The Secret Life of Machines that I could find on YouTube but lamented the poor video quality in all of them. The famous car episode featured an especially cute RC model car, a Model T or some British equivalent, that Rex had made for a prior British TV program. It not only ran forward, backward and turned left and right, it also had an independently movable suspension with each corner being servo controlled and able to move up and down on command; a servo controlled movable hood (bonnet), movable doors, headlights and other parts that really gave the car a whimsical life of its own. A very sophisticated toy when you consider that most RC gear in the 1980s used analog circuitry and a simple encoder chip and had none of the programmable digital circuits seen in today’s RC transmitters and receivers. RIP Rex, and thank you for showing us Hackaday nerds how to make stuff that works!

  7. It was wirh sadness I read about the last days of Rex on the BBC news website. Rex and Tim were an inspiration to me and others with their Secret Life of Machines series’. If you haven’t seen these you should really look them up.

  8. Having met Rex on a number of occasions over the years, at local car-boot sales & radio rallies I can say he was always a delight to talk to, Kind, and generous of spirit.

    On one occasion I took my then robot wars obsessed nephew (now a BT Research engineer) to a live event. Seeing my nephew was looking a little bored waiting for the event to start he grabbed a hazel twig & deftly turned it into a penny whistle for him.

  9. Ahh, so sad to hear this. I used to watch Secret Life of Machines when it was on The Discovery Channel (I think) in the mid-90’s, and I just introduced my 9 year old son to it on YouTube. I loved how the show lacked any fluff, attitude or, today’s affliction du jour, “Personal Brand”.

    After showing some episodes to my Son, I wondered what became of Rex and Tim, which is why I instantly recognized his name today.

    Still sad, but having lost a parent to dementia, at least his struggle is over. Rest in peace, Rex.

  10. What a shame. I remember watching his show “The Secret Life of Machines” when I was younger. In fact, I recently re-discovered them on YouTube and have been showing them to my kids. Wherever he’s headed next I hope he’s got a wrench in one hand and a screwdriver in the other! Thanks for the memories.

  11. I first met Rex when he was invited to speak at my college, eventually got into the same line of work and met him a few more times over the years, always a pleasure to talk to, always helpful and was always wanting to show off whatever his latest madcap idea was.
    One story I heard about him , he wanted to play a prank on a friend so he hooked up his door bell to a paintball gun aimed at his front door.
    Unfortunately the postman got there first ! Fortunately, being in a small English village, everyone knows everyone, so the postie just laughed it off.

    RIP Rex, the world needs more people like you.

  12. R.I.P. Rex. He and Tim helped me understand how things worked. The Exploratorium in San Fransisco has the videos of all the episodes of Secret Life of Machines AND the “third season” in regards to the office equipment. Such a brilliant mind and that man had “the spark.”

  13. Oh this is terrible news, 31 years later and their program is still the only example of perfect education programming to grace a television (in my opinion). I still watch those episodes over and over. They were so ahead of their time. God speed Rex!

  14. So sad to hear of Rex’s death. The Secret Life of Machines was instrumental in inspiring me to become an engineer. I was lucky enough to meet Tim Hunkin a few years ago when he gave a talk on his automata (although, I was embarrassingly starstruck and he seemed slightly bewildered that I might want to shake his hand!). I asked about Rex, and knew he wasn’t well. Anyone who hasn’t read it yet, please read Tim’s obituary of Rex. I have to wonder if that gallon of mercury had anything to do with his dementia, though…

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