On Longevity with The Secret Life of Machines
If you haven’t heard of the show ‘The Secret Life of Machines’, you can be forgiven, as it is a too-easily missed gem. Though gaining a cult following since being first aired in 1988 to 1993, it has never made it to modern media. I have no idea why.
I suggest ‘The Secret Life of Machines’ is one of the best examples of how meaingful stories can simultaneously date and have amazing longevity. Often, it feels like we treat these as separate charactertistics; that something has be unmoored from its time to still have relevance today. I think that is an illusion. Let me explain.
‘The Secret Life of Machines’ was a show hosted by British designer, animator, engineer and artist Tim Hunkin, alongside prop maker, technician, stunt-man and artist Rex Gerrold. Together, over the course of three all-to-brief seasons, they explain the history and functioning of a wide range of common household appliances. The mundane stuff that we take no notice of; like washing machines, fridges, televisions, and so on.
Along the way they blend their explanations with demonstrations of a wide range of antique machines. The antique machines serve as a wonderful visual representation of how technologies developed over time. Tim and Rex also create experiments to demonstrate how each of the machine components function. As is only fitting, each episode ends with a tremendous artistic set piece involving dozens of props or special effects, sometimes exploding or catching on fire (much to the delight of younger audiences).
The setting and style were even more intrinsic to the charm of the series. Both presenters have a quiet and strangely quaint approach to delivering their ideas. The show seems to be set in a backyard workshop, with the larger artistic set pieces built outside. The whole setting, in turn, was situated against a marshy seashore somewhere in England.
Managing with a limited production budget, Tim and Rex hosted the show with an honest, warm and ad-hoc camradarie. I suspect they wrote the scripts, planned all the experiments and most definitely built all the equipment themselves. As you might expect, the animated cut-scenes were hand-drawn stop-motion animations by Tim, the lead host.
Throughout the entire series they comment quietly, and yet with a strangely resolute force, on the dangers of consumerism and planned obsolescence in engineering and manufacturing.
I saw ‘The Secret Life of Machines’ in my high school chemistry class, while still living in the United States. I think we were watching the show because my school was having some arcane dispute with the school board which meant we couldn’t use our Chemistry textbooks. Instead they sat on the shelf in shrink wrap while we watched ‘The Secret Life of Machines’. Personally though, I think we were better served by the show than by reading the textbook. I have remembered the series and its concepts ever since.
Even in the heyday of the technologies described in the show, the content was starting to age. Despite that, I had a sense that ‘The Secret Life of Machines’ was something special. Today, the show is totally out of date from a technological perspective and yet even more precious. You might think a deep and intricate explanation of the history and working of a Video Cassette Recorder would hardly seem worth watching.
But I think the concept of ageless ideas is an illusion. Everything dates and that is probably a good thing. It creates room for new ideas. It allows us to contrast an older idea with a newer one.
That said, the things that last the longest embrace their specific moment in history; deeply and authentically. In a way they seem to become a time capsule for a moment. They are made with love, a strong work ethic and an eye for detail that allows them to connect to a deeper social or cultural truths. In this way, the most lasting stories come from within.
So the best stories live long after they cease to an accurate representation of our own time by both dating and being relevant. They connect with us, even if they talk about events, people or things that are long past. I don’t think this happens because they are ageless, but because their age doesn’t matter.
Photo of Washing Machines by Bianca Jordan on Unsplash