The Secret Life of Machines

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The Secret Life of Machines is a television series created by Tim Hunkin and presented by himself and Rex Garrod. In it they explain the inner workings and history of common household and office machinery. According to Hunkin, the series was developed from his comic strips The Rudiments Of Wisdom which he researched and drew for the Observer newspaper over a period of 14 years.

Three separate series were produced and originally shown between 1988 and 1993 on Channel 4 in the UK. The programme has also subsequently aired on the Discovery Channel.

The theme song is called The Russians are Coming (a cover of Dave Brubeck's Take Five) by roots artist Val Bennett.

Contents

There were three individual series in all, each covering a particular set of machines. The first covered household appliances, whilst the second broadened its scope to include devices used outside the home (such as the car). The third series (sometimes referred to as The Secret Life of the Office) looked at the machines used in a modern office.

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 often covered related technologies. For example, the video recorder episode looked at magnetic recording from its origins, and memorably featured Hunkin and Garrod recording their voices on some crude home-made "audio tape" consisting of rust-coated sticky tape.

Another notable aspect about the programmes was their use of humorous animations based on Hunkin's own drawings. These were often based around the historical figures involved in the development of a particular technology. These animations were also an artistic commentary on modern society such as what people fantasize about while riding in an elevator (as shown in the episode "The Lift") or corporate disregard for individuals' rights (shown in many episodes including "The Radio" and "The Car").

The final programme in each series (as well as some others) ended with an epilogue consisting of an elaborate installation which resembled an aspect of the machine or technology under discussion. One notable example was a giant statue resembling a robot, which was built from scrap computer monitors, printers and other parts. This was blown up with the use of pyrotechnics. Hunkin described it as an allegory that computers are just a collection of transistors and no "superhuman intelligence".

Series 1 (1988)

This series covers household appliances.

The vacuum cleaner

The sewing machine

The central heating system

The washing machine

The refrigerator

The television set

Series 2 (1990)

In the second series, the scope is widened slightly to include devices used outside the home. The first two episodes are closely related, both dealing with the car and similar vehicles.

The car

More specifically, this episode covered the body/chassis component only.

The internal combustion engine

The quartz watch

The telephone

The radio

The video recorder

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.

The lift

The word processor

This programme used its core subject as the basis for a look at many significant technologies surrounding modern computer systems.

The electric light

The photocopier

The fax machine

The office

The final "Secret Life" programme broadcast, this episode broadened its scope to cover not just the physical technologies, but also the evolution of the social engineering involved in the running of an office.

Creative uses

Hunkin and Garrod used the series to show - with apparent pride - some of their devices which they built from parts taken from above named machines. The creations, some of which were only decorative, others useful, albeit offbeat in appearance, show the potential uses of broken machinery. An extreme example is the giant clock powered by steam power.

Availability

Tim Hunkin himself encourages others to download the series from filesharing networks.

External links

The Secret Life Of Machines Home Page

Section on TV writing and presenting on Tim Hunkin's homepage

Footnotes

^ Or seasons, as groupings of individual programmes are referred to in U.S. English

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