The Secret Life of Machines

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The Secret Life of Machines
Garrod (left) and Hunkin (right) demonstrating how to make "audio tape" from sticky tape and powdered rust
Garrod (left) and Hunkin (right) demonstrating how to make "audio tape" from sticky tape and powdered rust
Created byTim Hunkin
Developed byTim Hunkin
Written byTim Hunkin
Directed by
  • Andrew Snell (1988)
  • Nigel Maslin (1990)
  • Frank Prendergast (1993)
Presented byTim Hunkin
Narrated byTim Hunkin
Theme music composerVal Bennett
Opening themeThe Russians are Coming (a cover of Take Five)
Ending themeThe Russians are Coming
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of series3
No. of episodes18
ProducerElizabeth Queenan
Production locationsLowestoft, Suffolk, England, United Kingdom
CinematographyMike Coles
EditorPeter Cox
Camera setupMulti-camera
Running time25 minutes
Production companyArtifax
Original networkChannel 4
Picture formatPAL (576i)
Audio formatMonaural
Original release15 November 1988 (1988-11-15) –
25 March 1993 (1993-03-25)
Followed byThe Secret Life of Components

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 broadcast on The Learning Channel and the Discovery Channel in the U.S.[2][3][4][5]


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

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.

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").

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".


All the series used a combination of mechanical models and 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[edit]

Series 1 (1988)[edit]

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)[edit]

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 Ford Kent 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. Historically also covers the history of time keeping, including early clocks, pocket watches and mechanical wristwatches.
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. Historically also covers the telegraph.
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 and explains how radio waves can transmit signals and sound.
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. Historically also covers the functions and development of magnetic recording, including audio recorders.
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)[edit]

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/Elevator"18 February 1993 (1993-02-18)
Explores how a lift functions and its history, beginning with the initial efforts by Elisha Otis.
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, including how they evolved from 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 and the history of its development. Detail is also given on the various versions of light bulbs.
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, and explores early attempts in document duplication.
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, and covers the history of early pantelegraphs and telecopiers.
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 just after a holiday party, 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.

The Secret Life of Components[edit]

Coinciding with the release of the remastered original episodes of The Secret Life Of Machines (see below), Tim Hunkin began a self-produced spiritual successor called The Secret Life of Components.[6] It explored some of the individual parts that so often make up the appliances and machines that were the focus of the original series. The 8 weekly episodes included what Hunkin has learned through his experience with the component, along with many models for demonstration and examples from his amusement machines and other works. It premiered March 3, 2021 on Hunkin's YouTube channel[7] with an episode on chain and belts. In the last episode of series 1, Hunkin commented that he may make another series the following winter. A 5 episode second series then debuted in spring 2022.

Series 1 (2021)[edit]

No Ep Title Original air date
11"Chain and Belts"3 March 2021 (2021-03-03)
Explores chains and belts, including demonstrations of different types of roller chain, round and toothed belts
22"LEDs"10 March 2021 (2021-03-10)
LED history, brightness and color, use in diorama, addressable LED strips, and power LEDs for home lighting
33"Hinges"17 March 2021 (2021-03-17)
An overview of different types of hinges and their usage around the home and in machinery.
44"Switches"25 March 2021 (2021-03-25)
An overview on how electrical switches work, and how to use microswitches for sensing and power switching in projects.
55"Springs"1 April 2021 (2021-04-01)
Explores springs, their manufacture, properties, and several different types of springs with their use cases.
66"Connectors"8 April 2021 (2021-04-08)
A wide variety of connectors are shown and their operation explained, including their benefits, drawbacks and how they may be used in equipment
77"Glue"15 April 2021 (2021-04-15)
Explores different types of glue, their properties and uses.
88"Bearings"22 April 2021 (2021-04-22)
A wide variety of bearings, bushes, and races are explained with their uses and properties including materials and lubrication

Series 2 (2022)[edit]

No Ep Title Original air date
91"Sensors"31 March 2022 (2022-03-31)
Explores use of various sensor and feedback devices
102"Linkages and Mechanisms"6 April 2022 (2022-04-06)
Explanations and demonstrations of levers, linkages, cranks, crankshafts, cams and capstans
113"Motors"14 April 2022 (2022-04-14)
Exploration of principles, properties and control of electric motors, particularly focussing on DC varieties
124"Screw Threads"21 April 2022 (2022-04-21)
Creation, usage, and troubleshooting of varieties of screw threads
135"Prototypes"28 April 2022 (2022-04-28)
Principles and processes of using prototypes of various forms in the creation of a final work

Creative uses[edit]

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.[8] In the epilogue for the remastered version of the episode, Hunkin mentions that the clock has been non functional for a long time.


The series has subsequently become available on online streaming sites on the Internet. As of 2023, no home formats have been officially released.[9]

Tim Hunkin himself encourages others to download the series from a number of nominated websites.[10]

In March 2021, Hunkin began posting remastered versions of the episodes to YouTube. These were upscaled from an analogue video source to improve the image quality and include a short, recently filmed epilogue by Hunkin on each episode. The first 6 remastered episodes, comprising the complete first series, were posted to YouTube on Saturday, March 13, 2021. Starting on Thursday, May 6, 2021, Tim started posting episodes from Series 2 at a rate of one a week (give or take a day). As of June 12, 2021, all 6 remastered episodes from this series have been posted on his channel. Series 3 is following a similar weekly schedule, with the Fax Machine episode being posted on June 18, 2021. All of the six episodes have been posted, with the final episode released on July 22, 2021.[11]


  1. ^ Woods, Sarah (20 May 2004). "Tim's weird and wonderful experiments". Richmond and Twickenham Times. Weybridge, England, United Kingdom. ISSN 1758-9304. OCLC 500308012. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  2. ^ Harvey, Robin (27 May 1995). "Practical TV crafts entertain". Toronto Star. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: John Cruickshank. p. H2. ISSN 0319-0781. OCLC 137342540. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  3. ^ "Critic's Choice". Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Minneapolis, Minnesota, US: Michael J. Klingensmith. 26 January 1993. ISSN 0895-2825. OCLC 61312696.
  4. ^ Werts, Diane (15 May 2004). "OFF THE WALL". Newsday. Melville, New York, US: Fred Groser. p. C01. ISSN 0278-5587. OCLC 5371847.
  5. ^ Barnhart, Aaron (21 May 2004). "Sweeps wind down with a few fresh shows". The Kansas City Star. Kansas City, Missouri, US: Mi-Ai Parrish. p. E9. ISSN 0745-1067. OCLC 3555868.
  6. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: The Secret Life of components. A series of eight guides for designers and makers by Tim Hunkin. YouTube.
  7. ^ "Tim hunkin - YouTube". YouTube.
  8. ^ Hunkin, Tim (2012). "tim hunkin/giant steam clock". Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  9. ^ Hunkin, Tim (17 August 2018). "THE SECRET LIFE OF MACHINES | dvds and videos". Archived from the original on 16 August 2018. Retrieved 22 May 2021. We get a lot of e-mails asking about DVDs and Videos of the Secret Life Of Machines and the Secret Life of The Office.
  10. ^ Hunkin, Tim (2012). "secret life of machines 1". Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  11. ^ Remastered SECRET LIFE OF THE VACUUM CLEANER on Tim Hunkin's YouTube channel

External links[edit]