The Secret Life of Components

If you ask an engineer of a certain age such as myself what one of the influences of learning about technology and how things functioned was in your early years I suspect a lot of them would mention The Secret Life of Machines. Broadcast in the late 80's the show covered how various common machines functioned in terms of their history development and general internal mechanics. It was presented by inventor and artist Tim Hunkin and special effects and roboticist Rex Garrod (who made Brumm and starred in early seasons of Robot wars). The two presented in a quirky slightly awkward but enthusiastic style how machines worked with examples and demonstrations of the internal mechanics and art and animation done by Hunkin himself in his unique style.

They did three seasons covering things like the washing machine the refrigerator and so on onto office equipment in the third season with things like the word processor and lift. The presentation was unique and somewhat like you'd just wandered into their shed while they were building something out of scrap but it got across how these machines functioned very effectively. Most of the episodes (these days available on youtube) hold up pretty well even today with things like fridges not really having changed significantly since then and some of the aspects where control systems like those seen in washing machines use microcontrollers rather than the cam systems of the time. I think the most dated is probably the section on word processors which in and of itself is a dated term and concept the idea of a machine that only does text documents and nothing else is completely obsolete these days and it shows some now ancient machines with what look like z80 chips in them. Still even then it does a good job of explaining the history and the general construction of those machines which still remains similar if by scale and scope vastly increased in todays equivalent. They're still a pretty entertaining watch.

Sadly Rex Garrod passed away from alzheimer's a few years back but Tim Hunkin is still about he wrote some articles for Make Magazine here in the US about various machines he built including a secure gate system for a tiger enclosure at a zoo with details on how he made it strong enough to withstand angry tigers but also not too difficult to operate for the keepers and keeping it under the budget. I also found he built this elaborate folding clock for a local science museum (the exploratorium down in san francisco) which unfolds and moves and is quite impressive to watch when it does its thing on the hour.

Anyway so I was quite pleased and somewhat surprised to see a video pop up in my feed that Hunkin had done in a new series on his youtube channel titled The secret life of components. Here this video first in the series is on Chains. It's aimed more towards the maker end of the interest spectrum this time and it explains the types of chains and belts and their uses. It shows off some of Hunkins contraptions from his various weird and wonderful arcade machines he's built that use chains in their operation. It was great to see this figure from my childhood still up and about doing his thing making contraptions and explaining their operation.


I don't remember Secret Life of Machines for some reason. This looks fab. Will share with Felix.

brainwipe's picture

I feel like I would remember it too but I have no recollection. Maybe it didn't make it to London?

I think my earliest memory in a similar vein was The Great Egg Race.

fish's picture

I've watched 35 minutes of it with Felix and we love it. Great show.

brainwipe's picture

Glad Fish doesn't remember it, his memory is FAR better than mine (ironically). Annoyed that I missed it, we would have loved this as young teens.

brainwipe's picture

I loved the series as a kid.

Bigger Rob's picture

I see they've started doing some remasters of the original secret life of machines episodes (ai upscaled by the look of it) which is nice as the captures from vhs that were about were a little fuzzy in places

Evilmatt's picture