The Secret Life of Machines and the amazing Tim Hunkin
January 5, 2007 8:43 AM   Subscribe

All the episodes of The Secret Life of Machines are available online. Created by engineer, artist, tinkerer and cartoonist Tim Hunkin, the show took a look at the science and mechanics behind common household objects, with a bit of social history, homemade laboratory experiments, and downplayed humor. The series grew out of a long-running strip, which Hunkin has now offers as his own cartoon encyclopedia. You can also try some experiments of your own, marvel at the coin-operated contraptions he made for the Under the Pier Show in Suffolk (don't miss the film), and read his thoughts about his brief foray into the fine art world and his ruminations about how art and engineering mix.
posted by hydrophonic (27 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Holy crap! I loved this show when I was a kid! I'll be downloading it, burning it to DVD and making my wife watch it. Thanks, hydrophonic!
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:47 AM on January 5, 2007

What a fabulous programme that was. Thanks for these links!
posted by vbfg at 8:48 AM on January 5, 2007

Well i am going to go out on a limb and say I actually liked The Secret Life of Machines and have enjoyed Tim Hunkin's work since he had the Observer strip. You can see one of his creations in Covent Garden if you are in the big smoke.
posted by asok at 9:06 AM on January 5, 2007

Sadly in .avi format for us Apple QT users...
posted by the sobsister at 9:08 AM on January 5, 2007

I was just about to write "I loved this show as a kid" when I saw that Faint of Butt already had. Thanks for posting these - I'm forwarding this to everyone I know.
posted by pombe at 9:28 AM on January 5, 2007

I'd gotten these long ago. Great show -- a testament to ad-hackery.

Tim Hunkin built a large exhibit for the Science Museum in London called the Secret Life Of The Home. I enjoyed it quite a bit, halfway because of the detail, and halfway because it reminded me of this show.
posted by eriko at 9:30 AM on January 5, 2007

Wonderful post Faint of Butt! I've never seen the Secret Life of Machines and am just now watching the one of the fridge. It's excellent. Brilliant, funny animations and delightful, unpretentious, fun and interesting teaching technique. Definitely a + fav. Thank you.

The coin operated contraptions are marvelous. and some of them are hilarious. I love the Is It Art? one, poking fun at art snobs.

What a great combination, Tim Hunkin: cartoonist/engineer.
posted by nickyskye at 9:33 AM on January 5, 2007

This series is awesome. First there's the awesomely laid-back attitude toward dangerous working conditions:
"Using a lager can as a projectile, Rex will add a teaspoon of petrol...".
Then there's the wonderful cartoons:
"Ooop, nearly killed me!"
(OK, you can't really tell the humour in that from the quote, but trust me, it's hilarious. Go watch the engine episode.)
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:34 AM on January 5, 2007

AWESOME!!!!! I have been anxiously waiting to see if Discovery or Science would run them again. Love em! Thanks!
posted by The Deej at 9:38 AM on January 5, 2007

The Sobsister - they're also available on Google Video.

Hunkin's a family friend - his sister's partner is documentary maker Adam Curtis - discussed here.
posted by muthecow at 10:10 AM on January 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Adam Savage are you there? Invite him onto Mythbusters as a special guest.
posted by A189Nut at 10:23 AM on January 5, 2007

Back in the halcyon days when The Learning Channel actually had educational programming, this was programmed back to back with James Burke's Connections and when that ran its course, The Day the Universe Changed.

What great shows. For the umpteenth time, why the hell can't American networks make programs like that?
posted by Pastabagel at 10:27 AM on January 5, 2007

thanks, muthecow, I'm on it!
posted by the sobsister at 10:29 AM on January 5, 2007

Way cool muthecow for linking to The Mayfair Set documentary thread. How nice Hunkin is a family friend. As I explore the links hydrophonic posted, I really admire Hunkin's work and his terrific sense of scientific, playful understanding.
posted by nickyskye at 10:48 AM on January 5, 2007

Wonderful post Faint of Butt!

Thanks, but I'm afraid the credit goes to hydrophonic.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:02 PM on January 5, 2007

D'oh. Thanks Faint of Butt, you're right.

Wonderful post hyrdrophonic! :)
posted by nickyskye at 12:17 PM on January 5, 2007

Oh, awesome! I loved these when I was a kid but eventually forgot the name of the show. I came across it again on mefi but still hadn't found any video. Thanks!
posted by nTeleKy at 12:34 PM on January 5, 2007

I've written to The Learning Channel asking them to rebroadcast these. I loove the Internet all over again.
posted by theora55 at 12:58 PM on January 5, 2007

An outstanding resource. I watched the episode on electric light, and speaking as a welder, was particularly impressed by the carbon arc light from a pencil.

Within his printed pieces, Hunkin has one on pulling a boiled egg into a milk bottle. Yeah, I remember hearing about that one back when I was a kid in the early 70's. I suspect that many Americans under 25 may have never even heard of a "milk bottle" as it all comes in paper or plastic now, and has for many years. Can one of our fine UK residents tell us if milk bottles are still around over there?

For those still clueless, a "milk bottle" is what the bum drops and breaks when confronted by a deranged McCoy in " The City on the Edge of Forever".
posted by Tube at 6:03 PM on January 5, 2007

God, I loved these programmes when I was younger; they were about the best thing on Channel 4 when I was a kid, I'm off to dip into a pool of techno-nostalgia.
posted by Len at 7:15 PM on January 5, 2007

I think I just peed my pants a little. I adored these programs when I could get them as a kid in the states! Right down to the Brubeck, man what a quality show. Thank you! I know my brother will be tickled too!
posted by Pollomacho at 7:50 PM on January 5, 2007

To sobsister and others bummed about DivX/Xvid AVIs on a Mac:
One of the easiest ways to get them to work is to install Perian, a set of QuickTime components that let you watch these AVIs from within QuickTime Player, FrontRow, iTunes, or whatever.
posted by todbot at 8:02 PM on January 5, 2007

Tube: there's one sitting on my desk right now. My partner went on a nostalgia trip just before Christmas and started ordering from the local milkman. They're pretty rare these days, though - most of the stuff comes plastic- or origami-wrapped.

(Oh, and one more voice for the chorus: awesome show, thanks for the link).
posted by Leon at 9:32 PM on January 5, 2007

Fantastic show - I watched this when I was a kid, and while some of the more complicated stuff passed me by, I loved the cartoons. I'm amazed at how well it's aged, and also disappointed by the fact that there are few documentaries as good as this any more. Mythbusters is good stuff, but The Secret Life of Machines has got such a great British matter-of-factness and wry humour.

For anyone having problems viewing the videos on a Mac, here's what to do:

1) Go to the Google Video index for The Secret Life of Machines.

2) Choose an episode, and then click on Download

3) It'll make you download the Google Video Player. You won't actually use this, but if you don't download and run it at least once, it'll keep on bugging you about it.

4) Click on the Download the show link, and it'll save a GVP file.

5) Open the GVP file and then take the URL string, which will look like this: ""

6) Paste that into your browser. It'll then begin downloading an AVI file.

7) The AVI cannot be played in Quicktime, but VLC will do it just fine.

This method for downloading, incidentally, should work for pretty much any video on Google Video.
posted by adrianhon at 4:20 AM on January 6, 2007

Fantastic! Thankyou! A teaching friend has been looking for these for a while to show to his charges, and the official education copies are incredibly expensive (and VHS.)
posted by Luddite at 7:48 AM on January 6, 2007

...and there goes the bandwidth allocation. Anyone know of a torrent?
posted by Luddite at 8:19 AM on January 6, 2007

Just download from google video...
posted by pharm at 1:22 PM on January 6, 2007

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