made things since I was a small child, starting with cardboard and
sellotape. Neither of my parents made things, but my mum is a fearless
bodger and always encouraged me. For my eleventh birthday my godmother
gave me an electric drill. My mum was terrified but let me keep it. It was
brilliant. I started making mechanical things out of wood. The cost of
batteries was always a problem so I swopped to the mains when I was about
read engineering at university, but a couple of years after I'd left the
Observer (a UK Sunday paper) spotted the The Rudiments of Wisdom' cartoon
strip I had drawn for a student paper. I stayed at the Observer 14 years
drawing my cartoon strip, while I continued to make things at home. My
next career was in television. I spent 5 years making three series called
The Secret Life of Machines, shown on Discovery and the UK channnel
Channel 4. Then I worked for museums for 8 years, particularly
making the 'Secret Life of the Home' gallery for London's science museum.
Since 2001, I've been obsessed by my 'Under the Pier Show' amusement
arcade on Southwold pier, when not distracted by building enormous clocks.
often ask where my ideas come from. I find media hysteria entertaining,
and this results in machines like 'Whack-a-banker'. Ideas like 'My-Nuke'
come from my fascination with technology.
Some ideas are more personal. 'Microbreak' came from arguing with
my wife about a holiday. Generally I don't think my ideas are particularly
clever ideas are often over rated - the devil is in the detail. Certainly
the fun is actually making the machines. Working on one for months
inspires lots of small improvements so a final machine is always much
richer than the initial drawing.
lived through enormous changes in the way things are made. I started
controlling my machines with electromechanical cam timers that I bought
from surplus shops in London. I didn't buy a computer until I was nearly
40. The surplus shops disappeared, but then Ebay started up. The PLCs
(programmable logic controllers) which I now use instead of cam timers
make it possible to simplify mechanisms. Clever software can replace lots
of mechanical parts. It has also become much more straightforward to
incorporate sound and video. I now also use Arduino microcontrollers
(which are amazingly powerful) so I could easily incorporate 21st century
elements like Wee accelerometers, RFID tags, GPS and Wi-fi in my machines.
people do ambitious things with software and then add a simple physical
interface. Machines like mine, which are mainly mechanical with a bit of
added software 'intelligence', are less common. Its really exciting and
still largely unexplored territory.
few years ago I was tempted to learn more programming, but I realised that
I prefer working with my hands. The constraints of software are man made
and seem arbitrary to me so they are often frustrating, whereas the constraints
of mechanical stuff are elemental - basic physics and chemistry. If
something mechanical doesn't work its clearly my fault, but with software
it maybe my fault or equally the people who wrote it.
then I am biased, I'm just not suited to sitting at a desk all day. Its
fun in the shed, with all my wonderful tools. Its surprisingly sensual,
the smells of the chemicals, feeling surfaces and tolerances with my
finger tips. The workshop stores are a physical version of a memory map.
Looking round I often find solutions to problems. Sometimes when I'm
distracted, I'm not even conscious that I have solved a problem.
was 59 when I put this DVD together. Most of my working life was before
video had become easy to edit and to share, so all that remains are a few
old VHS tapes and some broken machines in a shed. Graham and I spent a
week coaxing the old machines back to life to film them and then I got out
the old tapes to edit them. I was particularly pleased to find that so
much footage I still existed of my steam clock. I spent a year making it
in 1984-5 and even though it was never reliable, it was amazing that it
worked at all. I’ve always thought of it as my masterpiece in the
medieval sense of the word. (Masterpieces were the objects made at the end
of apprenticeships, to prove the apprentice had 'mastered' his trade.)
not easy making machines work well - it took me a very long time to get
good at it. I spent ages making things badly, but it was still fun. People
enjoyed the machines I made as a child, even though they were so badly
made they hardly worked at all. So although my recent machines are quite
smart and almost professional, please don't be too daunted, I hope this
DVD will encourage some people to try making their own machines.