Rediscovering ‘The Secret Life of Machines’

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Stock-Vacuum
‘The Secret Life of Machines’ debuted on Channel 4 in 1988 with a look at the history of the vacuum cleaner. (From the collections of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales www.sl.nsw.gov.au, no known copyright restrictions).

Like many Americans, my initial exposure to the wonderful Channel 4 program The Secret Life of Machines came via the Discovery Channel’s re-airing of the series as part of their prime-time weeknight lineup in the early ’90s. The show’s distinctive visual style, accessible tone, and solid research brought the inner workings of all sorts of otherwise mundane household and office gadgets to light in a way that proved fascinating to middle-school me.

The presenters of the show, Tim Hunkin and Rex Garrod, chose a specific machine for each episode and spent the next half-hour deconstructing it (literally) and delving into the history behind its invention. By the end of each show, the viewer knows not only how the device works but also the backstory–sometimes comical, sometimes borderline tragic–of its development. As a bonus, the show often features asides showing how Hunkin and Garrod reuse and re-purpose machine parts into new contraptions.

The series is available online in its entirety with Hunkin’s blessing and holds up surprisingly well despite being over 20 years old. Part of this may well be due to the fact that some segments, made up of vintage stock film of the technology examined, were dated by design from the start (wait for the “telephone” episode to see an entirely too happy 1950s housewife dancing and singing about the new extension in her kitchen). But another, larger part of the series’ continued appeal stems from the ubiquity of the machines themselves. While e-mail has largely supplanted the fax machine for rapid business communication, for example, there is still much to be gained from learning exactly how a fax machine works. In fact, the discussion in that episode about digital transmission of data remains extremely relevant to the very technology that ousted the fax machine from its place of prominence. Thus even in instances where the machine in question may be outmoded or substantially evolved, the viewer comes to see this as part of an ongoing process.

This is the first in a series of posts looking at this remarkable show. The franchise kicks off with a look at the lowly vacuum cleaner, and in the course of examining the underlying technology we get an explanation of electromagnetism, how electric motors work (and see one built from household trash), and examine the surprising power of vacuum cleaner fans. There is an unexpected cameo by an inflatable pig from a Pink Floyd show and an equally unexpected performance by a barbershop quartet very enamored with their Hoover upright. Each show in the series ends with the credits rolling over an elaborate quasi-art installation featuring that episode’s machine, and in this case be on the lookout for wire-guided vacuum-cleaner rocketry. Lastly, since The Secret Life of Machines evolved in part from Hunkin’s newspaper comic, The Rudiments of Wisdom, there is often a strip that serves as a handy companion to the episode. The vacuum cleaner is no exception, and the comic is available at Hunkin’s website.

So gather the kids, pop some popcorn, and share this video to your TV. When it’s done and you have to get out your vacuum cleaner to deal with the popcorn aftermath, you and your kids may find you have a heightened sense of fascination about how it works.

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