Tim Hunkin is probably most famous for writing and presenting the Channel 4 series The Secret Life of Machines, but that's not all he's done. His Rudiments of Wisdom cartoon ran in The Observer for 15 years, and he's set up an amusement arcade featuring his own homemade coin-operated slot machines and simulators. He's currently working on an arcade game in which the user must cross a multi-lane highway using only a zimmer frame.
We cornered him in his shed and asked why he's never had a proper job, and he responded by revealing why cats like circuit digrams, and why rockets should never be fired along the washing line.
Your work is very much about performance and interaction: do you get a kick out of watching people play with your machines?
Yes, it's great - I don't understand how most fine artists manage without the sort of encouraging and genuine feedback I get.
How bad does it hurt when people don't get the point, or just ignore something you've made?
It hurts a lot, but generally I think I've learnt more from stuff that hasn't worked. The failure seems to stimulate a rash of new ideas.
How many times a day do you get told to get a proper job?
I used to but don't much any more. When I was first putting my website together, I felt it was a bit like coming out. I think before I'd tried to put on some sort of mask of respectability. Its one of the few good things about getting older that you stop caring what other people think.
TV science shows seem to always need to blow something up these days (cf Brainiac). Why? Should you have had more scantily clad ladies demonstrating how a fridge works?
I stopped watching TV science some years ago. I feel so disconnected with them I feel I must be on a different planet.
Do you play computer games? Which do you like?
I like the really early ones like Pong and Pacman, and I really like the arcade Sega Airline Pilot, the jumbojet simulator. I also like games which have a large worlds to explore - I mean to try Grand Theft Auto 3 as a couple of friends have told me it's vast.
Do you think that video games somewhat killed something of the fun of old mechanical penny arcade games?
No, there are some great video games and some crap mechanical ones. However, there is something appealing about machines where you can puzzle out how they work by looking at the mechanism for long enough. You can do this with old mechanical slot machines, but not with video.
Do you miss doing "The Rudiments of Wisdom" in the Observer every week?
A bit. It was great for my brain to have to think about a new subject every week, but as I've got older I think I prefer to spend longer thinking about a single subject. I also got increasingly suspicious of everything I read in books. Today I like learning stuff I can try for myself, and I now find reading primary historical sources and trying to make my own sense of them more exciting.
How many of your inventions come from a cartoon you've drawn and thought 'You know, that would work in real life...'?
It doesn't seem to happen that way. I use lots of drawings to refine mechanisms but the original ideas are hardly ever visual. This had never occured to me before you asked the question. I think my ideas come from a mix - things like working on stuff and realising the technology has other possibilities, and reacting to the frequent absurdity of the media news.
Have you ever made something you liked so much you kept it?
I quite like having whatever I've just finished around for a while before it departs. But then I also seem to have quite a lot of stuff that has never ever left. I never got into selling stuff in galleries because I prefer my stuff to be on public display, accessible to anybody, not 'owned' by someone rich. Last year I was thinking of burning some of the old stuff but I was persuaded to jam it all into a spare shed.
How big is your shed? (I'm guessing, bigger than your house).
Its about the same size as my house. If it had been bigger, I'd probably have got into building bigger things - but maybe not, when things get larger they take longer to make, I'm really quite happy with the intermediate scale I like. Large enough not to be too fiddly and small enough not to be too difficult to handle all the parts. I do so love my workshop, it really is an extension of my brain. The tools and the stores often remind me of ways of solving problems I hadn't thought of.
How did you train your cat to play nice in your workshop? Mine would have upended every bolt, screwdriver and box of nails in the endless search for whatever it is cats are after.
The truth is he's like yours, I'm just a sucker for cats. Last week we were trying experiments with him. He seemed obsessed about sitting on the circuit diagram we were putting together, so we tried putting it in more and more uncomfortable places. He always moved and sat on it, where ever we put it.
What are cats after?
Food or attention
If, say, Alton Towers asked you to design their next headline ride, would you say yes? Would it involve skimming across lakes in Reliant Robins after being shot out of an air-cannon? Or would it be more subtle than that?
I would certainly say yes at first so I could find out more about what they wanted. It's only when I've met the people involved and tried to start working on ideas that I'm able to decide whether an offer of work is a genuine opportunity or whether there are too many restrictions. I think Alton Towers is all thrills and spills, so I think its unlikely I could compete. I'm sure there is a market for a sort of alternative theme park full of my sort of stuff, but it would cost a lot and I can't imagine anyone taking the risk.
Were you like this at school?
I generally didn't enjoy school, so I got very skilled at making myself as inconspicuous as possible.
What is your favourite toy?
I quite often see toys that I like, or think are really clever but I can't think of a favourite. As a kid I prefered to play with real stuff (bits of plumbing pipe, cardboard and sellotape etc) rather than toys.
Designing clocks seems to be popular with inventors such as yourself. What do you think is the appeal?
A lot of it is the appeal of a mechanism that can be puzzled out just by looking at it. Then I also like the noise a clock makes and the aesthetics of clocks - they can be so elegant. Its also the process of making a complicated mechanism like an escapement. Doing drawings only helps a bit - the real work is in my shed, a process of trial and error - the sort of intuitive engineering I love.
Have you ever made something and thought that it could make your fortune?
No. I did think of patenting a crap idea 25 years ago, but fortunately realised that I would never have enough cash to defend the patent if someone did infringe it.
You worked on the flying pigs and sheep for Pink Floyd. Do you have any interesting rock facts about that for us, eg did they ask for anything you couldn't make? Were the band themselves involved in any way?
I'm afraid it wasn't glamourous for me. I did meet Roger Gilmore [Note: An amalgam of Roger Waters and Dave Gilmore - Music Ed.] but mostly it was the bloke who ran their company (I can't remember his name but he now runs a company hiring out vintage cars to film companies) [Another note - we believe Tim may be referring to Floyd drummer and famous car collector Nick Mason - Music Ed. again]. Wilf Scott, who I was working with at the time, went on tour with them, but I just got the things to work and ran the factory manufacturing them.
Have you ever had a 'normal' job?
No - I was intending to get a proper engineering job after leaving Cambridge. I did apply for a few but I think I'd already started to enjoy being a sort of arty enterpreneur. Then I got the Observer newspaper cartoon strip a couple of years after leaving college - about 2 days a week and enough to pay the rent. Other people have told me that after a couple of years of being self employed you become unemployable. I think its true - all the time I've seen wasted on office politics seems so pointless.
Who is the most boring person you have ever met?
I quite often find people boring, but then I feel ashamed of myself. I think I was just being lazy not drawing them out on what they're into.
Have you ever managed to set your home on fire while inventing?
Yes. I was experimenting getting rockets to fly along the washing line in my parents back garden when one came loose and flew into the conservatory, attached to the house, where I was storing the fireworks. They all ignited, with a huge reel of fast fuse. Rashly I dashed inside and managed to shut the double doors into the house. I've become increasingly, and probably wisely, paranoid about fire, but I've done so many silly things I'm lucky to still have a home.
Who's your favourite inventor/engineer-type-person?
Probably Ismbard Kingdom Brunel. I'm no expert, but I've been travelling to Cornwall quite often recently, and I go over his Tamar Bridge - the trains still use it - it's so spectacular, and his whole life was so busy and dramatic.
The Centennial lightbulb has been burning for over a hundred years. How come? Is it just lucky, or particularly well made?
It's a mix. It must be perfectly made, but it also must be fed a perfectly constant voltage. Any changes in voltage and temperature produce thermal stresses which would reduce its life. There's a lightbulb in the UK now at Amberley Chalk Pits Museum that had to be moved a few years ago. I remember they had to keep it lit, at the same voltage, during the move.
Is it true that early billiard balls would explode if hit hard enough? Why?
Celluloid is chemically closely related to nitroglycerine - its easy to get the mix a bit wrong. I don't think it happened often though.
Do you know if the Penny Arcadia museum in Pocklington is still open? Have you ever been?
No, I think there are lots of penny arcade museums - I've hardly visited any.
In a 24-hour deathmatch with you against Brian Blessed, who would win/get tired first?
I'm not familiar enough with him to know - impossible question anyway.
What is the meaning of life?
No idea. I just feel really lucky to be alive, and it just seems to me to be important to make the most of my short time on the planet.
Visit Tim's website for all kinds of online Hunkin-related reading, or the Under The Pier show in Southwold, Suffolk, to experience the real thing.
Thanks to chthonic, monkeon, Wong Fei-Hung, _Felix, master, Cocodaye Miasere and Automatic Mince for the questions, and to Fraser for the other bits.