Restart Podcast Ep. 21: Tim Hunkin and the Secret Life of Machines

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The universe of Tim Hunkin is one of whirring gears, flashing lights and strange characters: but underneath the fun and frivolity is an in-depth examination of the history of society’s relationship with technology.

Many of our Restarters fondly remember Tim Hunkin as the host of the ‘The Secret Life of Machines’, which aired for the first time in 1988 and ran for 18 episodes. Tim and his friend Rex Garrod would take apart some of the machines that we blindly take for granted in our every day lives, demystifying their inner workings. By unveiling the long histories of these gadgets, Tim turned his audiences into more appreciative users: people who could get excited about a simple ride in an elevator or the miracle of a telephone call.

 

Tim, and Rex make a telephone wire

 

Aside from television, Tim has dabbled in engineering, illustration, and museum curation. You can still visit ‘The Secret Life of the Home’: a permanent exhibition that he put together in the basement of the Science Museum. But Tim’s great passion is invention. He talks to us about how tinkering and making are creative processes and offer satisfying intellectual challenges. He also talks about the sense of pride and ownership that comes with making and fixing something oneself. At Southwold Pier, he built his own wacky arcade – The ‘Under the Pier’ show. And in London, his ‘Novelty Automation’ arcade is tucked away in Holborn.

Novelty Automation tribute to the local history of popular entertainment in the city and a challenge to more corporate, large-scale entertainment industry that impinges on it. Tim’s handmade games span the length of his career and offer satirical glimpses of both the world today and the world of yesterday. In one game, users are asked to offer up an object from their pocket to an automated art-critic who decides: ‘Is it art?’ – In another, players are invited on a five-second virtual ‘mini-break’ to a tropical destination from their armchair.

Tim’s love of gadgets is inspiring – for Tim, technologies are not simply final, complete, perfect entities that we must either accept or reject. They are alive, constantly evolving along with society, and made up of intricate and complex components that are both miraculous in their workings and valuable in their materials. A happier relationship with our electronics means learning to celebrate this, and engaging with gadgets beyond their seemingly impenetrable exteriors.

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