The Secret Life of Machines

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The Secret Life of Machines


Hunkin (right) and Garrod (left) demonstrating how to make "audio tape" from sticky tape and powdered rust
Genre Educational
Created by Tim Hunkin
Developed by Tim Hunkin
Written by Tim Hunkin
Directed by
  • Andrew Snell (1988)
  • Nigel Maslin (1990)
  • Frank Prendergast (1993)
Presented by Tim Hunkin
Narrated by Tim Hunkin
Theme music composer Val Bennett
Opening theme The Russians are Coming (a cover of Take Five)
Ending theme The Russians are Coming
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of series 3
No. of episodes 18
Producer(s) Elizabeth Queenan
Location(s) Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, United Kingdom
Cinematography Mike Coles
Editor(s) Peter Cox
Camera setup Multi-camera
Running time 25 minutes
Production company(s) Artifax
Original network Channel 4
Picture format PAL (576i)
Audio format Monaural
External links
The Secret Life of Machines

The Secret Life of Machines is an educational television series presented by Tim Hunkin and Rex Garrod, in which the two explain the inner workings and history of common household and office machinery. [1] According to Hunkin, the show's creator, the programme was developed from his comic strip The Rudiments of Wisdom, which he researched and drew for the Observer newspaper over a period of 14 years. Three separate groupings of the broadcast were produced and originally shown between 1988 and 1993 on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, with the production subsequently airing on The Learning Channel and the Discovery Channel. [2] [3] [4] [5]

Educational television or learning television is the use of television programs in the field of distance education. It may be in the form of individual television programs or dedicated specialty channels that is often associated with cable television in the United States as Public, educational, and government access (PEG) channel providers.

Tim Hunkin British engineer

Tim Hunkin is an English engineer, cartoonist, writer, and artist living in Suffolk, England. He is best known for creating the Channel Four television series The Secret Life of Machines, in which he explains the workings and history of various household devices. He has also created museum exhibits for institutions across the UK, and designed numerous public engineering works, chiefly for entertainment. Hunkin's works are distinctive, often recognisable by his unique style of papier-mâché sculpture, his pen and ink cartoons, and his offbeat sense of humour.

Rex Garrod is an inventor and roboteer, notable for building the radio controlled car which starred in Brum and co-presenting The Secret Life of Machines. He also entered several successful robots into the early series of British TV series Robot Wars.



Each of the Secret Life's individual series covers a particular set of machines. The first addresses household appliances, while the second includes devices used outside the home, such as the car. The third series examines the contraptions and gadgets used in a modern office.

A typical example of the animation style used throughout the series Secret-life-animation-frame.jpg
A typical example of the animation style used throughout the series

Each episode was given an individual title, such as The Secret Life of the Vacuum Cleaner. Although ostensibly about a specific appliance or piece of technology, the scope of each episode was often widened to cover related technologies as well. For example, the video recorder episode looked at magnetic recording from its origins, and featured Hunkin and Garrod recording their voices on a crude home-made "audio tape" consisting of rust-coated sticky tape.

Video tape recorder

A video tape recorder (VTR) is a tape recorder designed to record and playback video and audio material on magnetic tape. The early VTRs are open-reel devices which record on individual reels of 2-inch-wide tape. They were used in television studios, serving as a replacement for motion picture film stock and making recording for television applications cheaper and quicker. Beginning in 1963, videotape machines made instant replay during televised sporting events possible. Improved formats, in which the tape was contained inside a videocassette, were introduced around 1969; the machines which play them are called videocassette recorders. Agreement by Japanese manufacturers on a common standard recording format, so cassettes recorded on one manufacturer's machine would play on another's, made a consumer market possible, and the first consumer videocassette recorder was introduced by Sony in 1971.

Iron(III) oxide chemical compound

Iron(III) oxide or ferric oxide is the inorganic compound with the formula Fe2O3. It is one of the three main oxides of iron, the other two being iron(II) oxide (FeO), which is rare; and iron(II,III) oxide (Fe3O4), which also occurs naturally as the mineral magnetite. As the mineral known as hematite, Fe2O3 is the main source of iron for the steel industry. Fe2O3 is readily attacked by acids. Iron(III) oxide is often called rust, and to some extent this label is useful, because rust shares several properties and has a similar composition. To a chemist, rust is considered an ill-defined material, described as hydrated ferric oxide.

Pressure-sensitive tape

Pressure-sensitive tape, known also in various countries as PSA tape, adhesive tape, self-stick tape, sticky tape, or just tape, is an adhesive tape that will stick with application of pressure, without the need for a solvent or heat for activation. It can be used in the home, office, industry, and institutions for a wide variety of purposes.

Another aspect of the programmes was their use of humorous animations based on Hunkin's own drawings. These cartoons were often based around the historical figures involved in the development of a particular technology. Furthermore, the illustrations were an artistic commentary on modern society, including segments on lift fantasies (as shown in the episode "The Lift") and corporate disregard for individuals' rights (featured in many episodes, including "The Radio" and "The Car").

Elevator vertical transport device

An elevator or lift is a type of vertical transportation that moves people or goods between floors of a building, vessel, or other structure. Elevators are typically powered by electric motors that either drive traction cables and counterweight systems like a hoist, or pump hydraulic fluid to raise a cylindrical piston like a jack.

Each programme concluded with an epilogue consisting of an elaborate installation, which resembled an aspect of the machine or technology under discussion. One example was a giant statue resembling a robot, which had been built from scrap computer monitors, printers and other parts, which was blown up using pyrotechnics. Hunkin described the destruction as an allegorical point that computers are just a collection of transistors and lack "superhuman intelligence".

An epilogue or epilog is a piece of writing at the end of a work of literature, usually used to bring closure to the work. It is presented from the perspective of within the story. When the author steps in and speaks indirectly to the reader, that is more properly considered an afterword. The opposite is a prologue—a piece of writing at the beginning of a work of literature or drama, usually used to open the story and capture interest. Some genres, for example television programs and video games, call the epilog an "outro" patterned on the use of "intro" for "introduction".

Installation art three-dimensional work of art, usually from various materials and larger than a sculpture. For the art genre, use Q212431.

Installation art is an artistic genre of three-dimensional works that often are site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space. Generally, the term is applied to interior spaces, whereas exterior interventions are often called public art, land art or intervention art; however, the boundaries between these terms overlap.

Pyrotechnics science of self-contained, self-sustained exothermic chemical reactions

Pyrotechnics is the science of using materials capable of undergoing self-contained and self-sustained exothermic chemical reactions for the production of heat, light, gas, smoke and/or sound. Its etymology stems from the Greek words pyro ("fire") and tekhnikos. Pyrotechnics include not only the manufacture of fireworks but items such as safety matches, oxygen candles, explosive bolts and fasteners, components of the automotive airbag and gas pressure blasting in mining, quarrying and demolition.


All the series used animation to help explain various aspect of how the subject devices function. The animation for the series was done by Hunkin himself in a uniquely recognisable format.

Episode list

Series 1 (1988)

The first series covers household appliances.

No Ep Title Original air date
11"The Secret Life of the Vacuum Cleaner"15 November 1988 (1988-11-15)
Explores how a vacuum cleaner functions.
Epilogue: Various vacuums fitted with pyrotechnics fly from a pile, guided by wires, with sparks streaming from the rear like a rocket.
Historical Figures Mentioned: Hubert Cecil Booth, James M. Spangler, William H. Hoover
22"The Secret Life of the Sewing Machine"22 November 1988 (1988-11-22)
Explores how a sewing machine functions.
Epilogue: A modern sewing machine is shown embroidering "THIS IS THE END ** GOODBYE" on a piece of fabric.
Historical Figures Mentioned: Thomas Saint, Barthélemy Thimonnier, Walter Hunt, Elias Howe, Isaac Merritt Singer, Edward Cabot Clark
33"The Secret Life of the Central Heating System"29 November 1988 (1988-11-29)
Explores how a central heating system functions.
Epilogue: A life-size model of a central heating system, used during the show, begins to spray water everywhere.
Historical Figures Mentioned: Ancient Romans, Normans, Lord Burlington, Robert Bunsen
44"The Secret Life of the Washing Machine"6 December 1988 (1988-12-06)
Explores how a washing machine functions.
Epilogue: A pyramid of washing machines is switched onto spin cycle whilst Hunkin talks about recent developments
55"The Secret Life of the Refrigerator"13 December 1988 (1988-12-13)
Explores how a refrigerator functions.
Epilogue: Multiple refrigerators are made to dance around using stop motion animation
66"The Secret Life of the Television Set"20 December 1988 (1988-12-20)
Explores how a television functions.
Epilogue: A mountain of television sets are burned in a massive bonfire whilst still switched on

Series 2 (1991)

In the second group of programmes, devices used outside the home are investigated. The first two episodes are closely related, both dealing with the car and similar vehicles.

No Ep Title Original air date
71"The Secret Life of the Car"8 January 1991 (1991-01-08)
Explores how a car functions. This episode covers the body/chassis component only.
Epilogue: The bodyshell of a Ford Cortina is cubed in a car crusher
82"The Secret Life of the Internal Combustion Engine"15 January 1991 (1991-01-15)
Explores how an internal combustion engine functions.
Epilogue: A running engine is carried to the centre of a "carhenge"—a replica of Stonehenge made entirely of car bodies—by several men in white coveralls
93"The Secret Life of the Quartz Watch"22 January 1991 (1991-01-22)
Explores how a quartz watch functions.
Epilogue: Tim Hunkin's closing narration is interrupted when an oven in the background bursts open, followed by a sped up and reversed recording of a watch in said oven baked to destruction
104"The Secret Life of the Telephone"29 January 1991 (1991-01-29)
Explores how a telephone functions.
Epilogue: Stop motion animation of various novelty phones dancing across a stage
115"The Secret Life of the Radio Set"5 February 1991 (1991-02-05)
Explores how a radio functions.
Epilogue: Multiple radios (which have been converted into remote-control cars) are driven around, sometimes colliding into one another
126"The Secret Life of the Video Recorder"12 February 1991 (1991-02-12)
Explores how a video recorder functions.
Epilogue: Scrap video recorders are arranged to spell out "THE END." The camera then zooms out, revealing Tim watching a recorded version of the epilogue.

Series 3 - The Secret Life of the Office (1993)

The third and final series concentrated on office-related technology. It also introduced an animated set of fictional characters who worked in the offices of the fictional Utopia Services company.

No Ep Title Original air date
131"The Secret Life of the Lift"18 February 1993 (1993-02-18)
Explores how a lift functions.
Epilogue: Hunkin is "blasted" into the sky in a lift car powered by rocket motors
142"The Secret Life of the Word Processor"25 February 1993 (1993-02-25)
Explores how a word processor functions. This programme used its core subject as the basis for a look at many significant technologies surrounding modern computer systems, e.g. the typewriter.
Epilogue: A giant robot-shaped frame covered in computers bursts into flames sending the computers tumbling to the ground
153"The Secret Life of the Electric Light"4 March 1993 (1993-03-04)
Explores how an electric light functions.
Epilogue: As the camera is lifted into the sky on a crane, what seems at first to be randomly placed house lighting is gradually revealed to actually spell out "THE END"
164"The Secret Life of the Photocopier"11 March 1993 (1993-03-11)
Explores how a photocopier functions.
Epilogue: Tim Hunkin is revealed to be sitting on top of a mountain of shredded paper at a recycling centre, followed by video of him using a bulldozer to drive through the pile
175"The Secret Life of the Fax Machine"18 March 1993 (1993-03-18)
Explores how a fax machine functions.
Epilogue: While testing out his home built model of a Pantelegraph, it begins to smoke and finally explodes
186"The Secret Life of the Office"25 March 1993 (1993-03-25)
Explores how an office functions. The final "Secret Life" programme broadcast, this episode covered not just physical technologies, but also the evolution of social engineering involved in the running of an office.
Epilogue: An office goes haywire, blowing paper everywhere, shaking binders and everything generally moving with a will of its own. After the chaos winds down, Tim Hunkin cautiously emerges from under a desk

Creative uses

Hunkin and Garrod used the series to show some of their devices they built from parts of machines featured on their programme. The creations, some of which were decorative, others functional, show the potential uses of broken machinery. An extreme example is the giant clock powered by steam. [6]

Steam engine Heat engine that performs mechanical work using steam as its working fluid

A steam engine is a heat engine that performs mechanical work using steam as its working fluid. The steam engine uses the force produced by steam pressure to push a piston back and forth inside a cylinder. This pushing force is transformed, by a connecting rod and flywheel, into rotational force for work. The term "steam engine" is generally applied only to reciprocating engines as just described, not to the steam turbine.


The series was released on video tape and DVD. It subsequently became available on online streaming sites on the Internet.

Tim Hunkin himself encourages others to download the series from a number of nominated websites. [7]

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