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About 'Tim Hunkin's Machines' DVD

I've made things since I was a small child, starting with cardboard and sellotape. Neither of my parents made things, but my mum is a fearless bodger and always encouraged me. For my eleventh birthday my god­mother gave me an electric drill. My mum was terrified but let me keep it. It was brilliant. I started making mechanical things out of wood. The cost of batteries was always a problem so I swopped to the mains when I was about 16.

I read engineering at university, but a couple of years after I'd left the Observer (a UK Sunday paper) spotted the The Rudiments of Wisdom' cartoon strip I had drawn for a student paper. I stayed at the Observer 14 years drawing my cartoon strip, while I continued to make things at home. My next career was in television. I spent 5 years making three series called The Secret Life of Machines, shown on Discovery and the UK channnel Channel 4. Then I worked for museums for 8 years, particularly making the 'Secret Life of the Home' gallery for London's science museum. Since 2001, I've been obsessed by my 'Under the Pier Show' amusement arcade on Southwold pier, when not distracted by building enormous clocks.

People often ask where my ideas come from. I find media hysteria enter­taining, and this results in machines like 'Whack-a-banker'. Ideas like 'My-Nuke' come from my fascination with technology.  Some ideas are more personal. 'Microbreak' came from arguing with my wife about a holiday. Generally I don't think my ideas are particularly clever ideas are often over rated - the devil is in the detail. Certainly the fun is actually making the machines. Working on one for months inspires lots of small improve­ments so a final machine is always much richer than the initial drawing.

I've lived through enormous changes in the way things are made. I started controlling my machines with electromechanical cam timers that I bought from surplus shops in London. I didn't buy a computer until I was nearly 40. The surplus shops disappeared, but then Ebay started up. The PLCs (programmable logic controllers) which I now use instead of cam timers make it possible to simplify mechanisms. Clever software can replace lots of mechanical parts. It has also become much more straightforward to incorporate sound and video. I now also use Arduino microcontrollers (which are amazingly powerful) so I could easily incorporate 21st century elements like Wee accelerometers, RFID tags, GPS and Wi-fi in my machines.           

Many people do ambitious things with software and then add a simple physical interface. Machines like mine, which are mainly mechanical with a bit of added software 'intelligence', are less common. Its really exciting and still largely unexplored territory.

A few years ago I was tempted to learn more programming, but I realised that I prefer working with my hands. The constraints of software are man made and seem arbitrary to me so they are often frustrating, whereas the con­straints of mechanical stuff are elemental - basic physics and chemistry. If something mechanical doesn't work its clearly my fault, but with software it maybe my fault or equally the people who wrote it. 

But then I am biased, I'm just not suited to sitting at a desk all day. Its fun in the shed, with all my wonderful tools. Its surprisingly sensual, the smells of the chemicals, feeling surfaces and tolerances with my finger tips. The work­shop stores are a physical version of a memory map. Looking round I often find solutions to problems. Sometimes when I'm distracted, I'm not even conscious that I have solved a problem.  

I was 59 when I put this DVD together. Most of my working life was before video had become easy to edit and to share, so all that remains are a few old VHS tapes and some broken machines in a shed. Graham and I spent a week coaxing the old machines back to life to film them and then I got out the old tapes to edit them. I was particularly pleased to find that so much footage I still existed of my steam clock. I spent a year making it in 1984-5 and even though it was never reliable, it was amazing that it worked at all. I’ve always thought of it as my masterpiece in the medieval sense of the word. (Masterpieces were the objects made at the end of apprenticeships, to prove the apprentice had 'mastered' his trade.)

Its not easy making machines work well - it took me a very long time to get good at it. I spent ages making things badly, but it was still fun. People enjoyed the machines I made as a child, even though they were so badly made they hardly worked at all. So although my recent machines are quite smart and almost professional, please don't be too daunted, I hope this DVD will encourage some people to try making their own machines.






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