tim   .


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.   hunkin




Shown on C4 in Britain,
and on the Discovery channel (with some cuts) in many countries, from 1991 onwards

In 1984 my position as a cartoonist at the Observer had started to look insecure – there were a rash of new editors, each imposing some new feature on the paper, with the existing features successively squeezed. Fortunately I had written and presented a TV script called ‘Why Things Go Wrong’ a couple of years before – directed by Mick Jackson, today a successful Hollywood director. Through this I acquired an agent, Rod Hall. Faced with my insecurity at the Observer, Rod encouraged me to try writing a series for TV.

The two sides of my life - researching stuff in books for the cartoon strip and making things, had made me realise just how much clever human activity in the world can not be explained in words or suit the format of a book, let alone fit with the publishing fashion of the day. The examples of this which seemed most immediate to me were the everyday machines around the home that everyone takes for granted. I’ve always enjoyed taking machines to bits and trying to mend them. It was always frustrating doing my cartoon strip about this sort of machine – it would be so much better if people could actually watch the machine working.
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I wrote a scruffy three page proposal about washing machines and sent it off. Rod arranged numerous lunches with TV executives but none came to anything. On the brink of accepting defeat a director I had drawn an animated cartoon for, Andrew Snell, said he would approach Channel 4 with my idea. I heard nothing for several years, but with impeccable timing, he rang to say it had been accepted within a month of my being sacked from the Observer. I’ve since been told, though I have no idea of whether its true or not, that my proposal landed on Jeremy Isaac’s desk (the then director of C4) just after his wife had died, when he was struggling to use his washing machine for the first time in his life.

The subjects of series one were:







They are all now on Youtube. 
If you want to download them, here are some of the options: 

The complete films are now online as streaming video and downloads for mobile phones, hosted by The Exploratorium, San Fransisco

You can also download MPEG2 files of the whole films from 
This link only works at the beginning of each month until their bandwidth is used up.
Alternative download sites:

This site has all the films in high quality video formats more suited to today's gadgets  

  The cartoon booklets I wrote to accompany the TV series are at

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One of my favourite demonstrations. I never managed to get everyone together for a rehearsal but they took to it perfectly. I never told Ellie to lift her arm to pull the thread off the reel but she had to (to provide enough slack as the needle goes round the bottom bobbin) just like the arm on a real machine.
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Made with the help of local engineer Peter Boggis.
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The finale of the last programme of the series.
Rex and I had built a number of bonfires incorporating working TV sets. If you separate the live and the neutral wire and place the TV on a solid board, it can keep going for ages, often starting to change channels automatically as the heat of the fire triggers the infra-red controller. We had never tried to burn 19 at once. Unfortunately we made a big mistake. Thinking that the credit sequence would only last a minute or two, we built a really fast fire. All the teles got too hot and stopped working so soon that the cameraman got very little good footage. televisions.jpg (11294 bytes)


I wrote the first series in 1987-8. Iím amazed and very flattered that it still has a following 16 years on. Looking at the films again, they seem to have aged surprisingly well. The style doesnít look too dated, probably because they never really looked like the mainstream TV of the time Ė even the style of my clothes has remained almost unchanged. Of course the technology of the machines has changed so they all need an extra scene or two to bring them up to date. 

The vacuum cleaner film was made before Dysonís cleaners were introduced. These use an old industrial idea of sucking the air and dirt through spiral vanes. This spins the dirt and flings it to the outside of the chamber. Dysonís version has several stages of vanes and needs no dust bag. Unfortunately the finest particles still get through so filter pads are needed over the outlet. These reduce the suction power of the machines, so Iím not sure they are any real improvement, despite the hype.  There is also more awareness of the link between asthma and house dust, so all manufacturers have put more effort into the outlet filters. 

Washing machines havenít changed much. All the programmer timers are now microprocessor based but everything else is roughly the same. Washing Ďballsí have been introduced as a green alternative to washing powder. The ceramic grains inside the balls help to dislodge oil and grease from clothes Ė but they donít work on my overalls or anything really dirty. The recent direct drive inverter motors are amazing - no belt, no brushes.

Sewing machines havenít changed at all! Sadly home sewing has become such a minority interest that most of my local fabric shops have closed and there hasnít been any investment developing the machines. A legacy of the original program is that Iíve become quite keen on sewing. I had a scrap Bernina I found on a household waste tip rebuilt, and Iíve been using it every since. 

Refrigerators are basically unchanged, but the disposal of scrap fridges is completely different. When I made the film, alternative refrigerant gases were starting to be introduced that are supposed to do less damage to the ozone layer of the atmosphere. Since then though, it has been decided that the gas trapped in the bubbles of the polyurethane foam insulation is also a problem, so now fridges have to be sent for specialist recycling, and every household waste tip has a mini fridge mountain.

 Central heating systems are little different, though most houses now have the heating pipes installed under the floor, instead of having radiators. Plastic, push-fit plumbing fittings are also gradually taking over from soldered joints.    

Television sets have gone wide-screen and the Ďpicture tubeí has become obsolete, replaced by other technologies. Plasma displays are similar in principle to fluorescent lights, the electricity exciting pixels of coloured phosphors to emit light in a vacuum.  They are wonderfully bright, but too expensive to take over completely.  Liquid crystal TVs are sophisticated versions of the liquid crystal displays in watches (see the quartz watch episode in series 2). A white backlight, from tiny cold cathode tubes, shines through a large, multi-layer liquid crystal cell which creates the colours of the individual pixels. Some video projectors also shine the light through liquid crystal cells, though others use a Texas Instruments chip which reflects the light off thousands of tiny mirrors (one for each pixel). Video TVs have recently started using LEDs for the backlight. They can vary the brightness of different parts of the screen to increase the contrast of the image.


Tim Hunkin, Jan 2010


  Secret life of machines 2



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