The Late Movies: The Secret Life of Machines

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I love The Secret Life of Machines, a late-1980s series about how everyday machines work. Presented primarily by engineer/cartoonist/artist Tim Hunkin, it's understated, funny, and deeply smart -- a gently curious investigation of how things go. Hunkin wrote about the first series:

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.

Hunkin has made loads of machines, as well as the flying pigs and sheep for Pink Floyd's Animals tour. He currently makes coin-operated machines for the Under the Pier Show in Suffolk -- which makes me really, really want to go to Suffolk. But for tonight, enjoy a few of my favorite episodes of The Secret Life of Machines. If you like these, they're all available for free online. (They're also on YouTube and various other spots, with Hunkin's permission.)

The Fax Machine

The first fax machine was patented way back in 1843 by Alexander Bain. In this 24-minute episode, Hunkin and copresenter Rex Garrod explain how the fax machine works.

The Vacuum Cleaner

The very first episode, this explains how vacuum cleaners work, with extensive animation by Hunkin. Hunkin writes:

The vacuum cleaner film was made before Dyson’s 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. Dyson’s 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 I’m 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.

The Refrigerator

The most dramatic part is around 2:45 when Hunkin blasts himself in the face with carbon dioxide.

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.

Lots and Lots More

Nine of the full programs are available on this YouTube channel, the rest are easily found (in segments) by searching. You may also wish to consult Hunkin's pages on Series 1, Series 2, and Series 3 (The Secret Life of the Office). Hunkin's pages also have links to (legal) downloads of all the episodes.

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July 18, 2012 - 6:00pm
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