Tim Hunkin, Engineer Cartoonist

Jeff Stephens is an inventory specialist at iFixit. He posted earlier this week about Museum Wax.

repair on the secret life of machines
Repair on the Secret Life of Machines

On the early ‘90s Discovery Channel show The Secret Life of Machines, an enthusiastic man in wire-rimmed glassed poked into the guts of everyday mechanical objects. That man, Tim Hunkin, is a wildly creative nut and engineer—and if you love to take things apart like we do at iFixit, you should know who he is. With flair and intuitive practicality, each episode of The Secret Life of Machines dismantled and examined the mechanical bones and the history of a different device.

I’ve been a fan since the first time I saw the opening sequence of the show in 1991: a cartoon vacuum, a washing machine, and other objects get up to dance as soon as the cartoon people leave the house. The show is whimsical yet exhaustively researched.

Old Technology Gives Insight into New Gadgets

While some gadgets on the show, such as video recorders, are rather long in the tooth, they remain interesting today as ancestors of today’s gadgets.  Now, heaps of videocassettes wait at swap meets for the few holdouts with functioning VHS machines. But the digital information on the fast-spinning disks of your hard drive is still encoded magnetically, like the old clunky reels of iron-coated plastic ribbon. In the video recorder  episode, Tim Hunkin and Rex Garrod demonstrate the principles of magnetic recording like no one else, using the moving blade on a band saw as a crude recorder and sifting iron powder on strips of sticky tape for homemade reel-to-reel ribbon.

Art and Fun Meet Education and Engineering

Hunkin, as I more recently discovered, is not just a teardown genius. Glimpses of Tim’s artwork and contraptions are sprinkled throughout The Secret Life of Machines, hinting at his creative genius and nutty sense of humor. In 2007, while describing the TV series to a friend, I was delighted to find Tim Hunkin’s  web page . There he has collected a marvelous hodgepodge of photos and videos of his projects, as well as selections of his lectures and writing. For years, Mr. Hunkin has been filling his Under the Pier Show on Southwold Pier in Suffolk, England with manic coin-operated amusements. Drop a few coins in Mr. Hunkin’s machines and you can be a nuclear reactor technician, a finance industry regulator, a fly looking for filth, and a mechanical dog walker, all in one afternoon. Tim’s educational installations for museums, his comical collecting boxes for various institutions, and his whimsical clocks make me wish I lived in the U.K.

Seeking something less whimsical? Tim Hunkin also writes thought-provoking essays, showcased on his site. He bridges art and creativity to engineering and mechanics in “Technology is What Makes us Human.” “An Initiation into Museum Design” is a useful primer for anyone tinkering with educational exhibits or any sort of demonstration gizmo, and “Illegal Engineering” gives a fascinating history of safes and safe cracking. Tim’s web pages offer all sorts of practical advice for tinkers. At the end of his electricity page after giving a brief introduction to his favorite motors, timers, and Programable Logic Controller, Tim explains how purchasing a children’s kit helped him more with practical electronics than the theoretical work in his engineering degree.

Even if you never take up building water clocks, museum exhibits, or arcade amusements Tim’s cabinet of wonders has something to entertain any tinker, engineer, or artist.

Tim Around the Web

Don’t miss Tim’s YouTube channel. It will keep you in stitches, and a YouTube search for The Secret Life of Machines will turn up lots of bits from the show. The San Francisco Exploratorium hosts a complete set of the show too.

Photo Credit: Tim Hunkin