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Hackaday Links: April 3, 2022

It’s that time of year again — the 2022 Hackaday Prize has officially launched, and we’re excited to see what it turns out. This year’s theme is “Sustainability, Resilience, and Circularity,” and just in time, too; if the last couple of years has taught us anything, it’s that we’ve got a lot of failure points built into the systems that run our world. As broken as things are, it’s tempting to just curl up in a ball and pretend everything’s fine, but that’s not how hackers respond to adversity. We need to control what we can control, and there’s plenty of work to be done. From sustainable energy ideas to ways to reduce the amount of stuff we throw away, from breathing new life into old equipment to building communities that can take care of themselves, there’s plenty of work to be done. So get over to the Hackaday Prize page, check out the launch summit video if you need some inspiration, and get hacking. And hurry up — things are only going to get better if people like us make it happen.

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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.

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Tim Hunkin Rides Again With The Secret Life Of Components

Long-time readers may remember one of the occasional Engineering Heroes series that focused on the British engineer, inventor and sometime TV presenter Tim Hunkin, known for his intricate creations, unusual arcade machines, and Secret Life Of Machines TV series’ from the years around 1990. It seems we’re now in for a fresh treat as he’s returning to our screens via YouTube with a new series. The Secret Life Of Components will be his attempt to pass on the accumulated knowledge of a long career that most of us would have given our eyeteeth for.

There will be eight videos in the series which launches on the 4th of March, and judging by the snippets in the preview video below the break he’ll be covering a wide range including springs, adhesives, chains, belts, switches, and much more. His entertaining style and beautifully built working models are guaranteed to make for some very good content while giving a unique view into the workshop of a true master of the craft.

As an appetiser it’s worth reading our profile of Tim Hunkin. It features a visit to his Novelty Automation arcade in London’s Holborn, which should be an essential stop for any travelling Hackaday reader finding themselves in that city.

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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.

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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.

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