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.

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