Retrotechtacular: The Secret Life Of The Electric Light

Normally, when we pick out something to carry the “Retrotechtacular” banner, it’s a film from the good old days when technology was young and fresh, and filmmakers were paid by one corporate giant or another to produce a film extolling the benefits of their products or services, often with a not-so-subtle “celebrate the march of progress” undertone.

So when we spied this remastered version of The Secret Life of the Electric Light an episode from [Tim Hunkin]’s fabulous educational The Secret Life of Machines TV series, we didn’t really think it would be good Retrotechtacular fodder. But just watching a few minutes reminded us of why the series was must-see TV back in the 1990s (when it first aired widely here in the States), especially for the budding geek. When viewed with eyes more used to CGI animations and high production values, what [Tim] and his collaborator, the late [Rex Garrod], accomplished with each of these programs is truly astounding. Almost every bit of the material, as well as the delivery, has an off-the-cuff quality to it that belies what must have taken an enormous amount of planning and organization to pull off. [Tim] and [Rex] obviously went to a lot of trouble to make it look like they didn’t go to a lot of trouble, and the result is films that home in on the essentials of technology in a way few programs have ever managed, and none since. And the set-piece at the end of each episode — often meeting its pyrotechnic destruction — always were real crowd-pleasers. They still are.

We have to say the remastered versions of The Secret Life episodes, all of which appear to be posted at [Tim]’s YouTube channel, look just great, and the retrospectives at the end of each episode where he talks about the travails of production are priceless. Also posted are his more recent The Secret Life of Components, which is a treasure trove of practical tips for makers and backyard engineers that’s well worth watching too.

22 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Secret Life Of The Electric Light

  1. There is a Paypal button right at the top of

    Easily the best £20 impulse contribution I’ve ever done. Even for just the Secret Life of Component videos, but you know you’ve watched all of the other videos too, and there are official upsampled with extras on YouTube now.

    The Secret Life of Word Processors is especially interesting, because how could those possibly be interesting? Tim starts off with a bunch of pre-computer history and then sneaks in a solid digital logic explanation, and what could have been an extremely dated video still is relevant today. And obviously watch until the end…

    1. Finally did the same. Watched ALL his videos and the Secret lifef of… series. He’s got an amazing ability to create aaaahs and oooohs even with simple things.

      Awesome guy!

    2. when i hear the first notes of the intro (here come the russians, i guess), chills go down my spine. these series are excellent piece of information and storytelling. i’m from the east block and i only saw them like 2-3 years ago, and i absolutely loved them.
      it would have been so cool to see them on tv as they were aired back in the time wheni was a kid.
      awesome by all counts!

  2. I saw one episode of the Secret Life of Machines and enjoyed it. Then my streaming service (Pluto? Haystack? Can’t remember) ended it. Thanks for the mention that its on YouTube.

    Oh… after Edison perfected the lightbulb… his wife invented the phrase that has haunted us ever since… ” Hey you left the light one ! We’re not made of money !” 😁

  3. I submitted some of his new stuff a month ago as he has made some new videos on bearings and chains that are a nice watch. I was introduced to Tim in the early 90s with his book Almost Everything There Is to Know was a nice read to a young kid interested in things I see similar kids reading the xkcd book as the modern book with a similar audience.

  4. I honestly think I owe my entire career to Tim and Rex. I watched their videos as a kid (born in 86) when my parents put them on. As early as I could hold a screwdriver my folks let me tear down old electronics to see what was inside. Tim and Rex’s videos were like a gold mine for me and they still are.

    I tip my hat to both of them and love seeing the fact Tim is still at it :)

    1. Didn’t have their videos because I live in Germany, but I want to take this chance to tip my hat to all PARENTS who let their kids “do stuff” and not push them in some other direction THEY think is good for the kids.

      I owe my father so much, he showed me EVERYTHING he did and explained it in detail to me if I was interested at that specific moment. Let me take apart stuff, let me build pyrotechnics, …

  5. As an older person I didn’t think much has changed but then there are only dim red LED’s represented here. We have come a long way. Those sodium lights, the light of hell. Good riddance!

  6. These remasters are apparently upscaled from some off the air PAL recordings someone did in the UK at some point during a re-run of the series. “The Car” episode has the same color glitches as all prior online releases of the series and both the NTSC and PAL DVD sets. It does look like whomever did the upscaling was able to fix the field order problems parts of “The Car” had, so this version is now the best available.

    The only ways to get a better copy would be to find an off the air PAL recording of that episode’s original broadcast (which shouldn’t have the glitches) or get the original films to scan.

    I watched the series in the 90’s here in the USA and am certain “The Car” didn’t have any issues. An NTSC recording of that would be nice but a poorer source for an upscaled version. Could just use such for replacing the bad spots.

    Years ago I contacted Tim Hunkin about this and he said it would cost $16,000 for the films, but didn’t say if that was per episode or the entire series. It was back when Kickstarter was only for American projects so he couldn’t do a Kickstarter campaign to buy the films.

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