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Tim Hunkin, Inventor Extraordinaire

August 26, 2015
by the gentle author

(Celebrating the sixth anniversary of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the last twelve months, before recommencing with new stories on 31st August)

Tim Hunkin

I know I cannot be the only one who still has a cardboard file of copies of Tim Hunkin’s genius cartoon strip, ’The Rudiments of Wisdom,’ clipped weekly from the Observer and cherished through all these years. So I hope you will appreciate my excitement when Tim invited me over to Bloomsbury  to photograph the arrival of his automata and slot machines, prior to the opening of Novelty Automation, his personal amusement arcade.

I can now reveal that there were a few anxious moments as Tim’s nuclear reactor lurched violently while being manhandled from the van. But you will be relieved to learn that all the machines fitted through the door and are safely installed inside his tiny premises in Princeton St off Red Lion Sq, where – for a small fee – Londoners will be able to practice money-laundering, witness a total eclipse, lose weight, get frisked, get divorced, get chiropody and – of course – operate a nuclear reactor.

I went back to admire Tim’s machines, illuminated and humming with life in their new home, which gave me the opportunity to have a chat with the engineer while he tinkered with the works, making his final adjustments and ironing out a few last minute snags. “I started making things as a child and the cartoons were a distraction at university when I couldn’t have a workshop,” he revealed modestly, his hands deep inside a machine, “I started drawing for a student magazine and that led me to the Observer.”

Leaning in close with a puzzled frown, Tim tilted his gold spectacles upon his brow and narrowed his eyes in thought, peering into the forest of cogs and levers. I hope he will forgive me if I admit could not ignore the startling resemblance at that moment, in his posture and countenance, to Heath Robinson’s illustrations for Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories.

“It’s much easier to make a living by drawing than by making things, and it’s harder to make things that work,” he confessed, turning to catch my eye, “I often say, I spent the first half of my life making things badly.”

“I just like being in my workshop, I get itchy feet sitting at a desk. But if my body gives out before my mind, I plan to write a huge book about Electricity,” he continued, growing excited as the thought struck him.

I plan to hang on as long as I can,” he reassured me, returning his concentration to the machine.

“The ingredient you need when you make things is to know it’s worthwhile,” Tim said, half to himself, “There needs to be a point to it – sometimes I leave my workshop and go down to the arcade in Southwold and I see people laughing at my machines there. You can’t imagine how addictive that is for me.” Casting my eyes around the room at Tim’s array of ingenious and playful machines, each conceived with a sharp edge of satirical humour, I could easily imagine it. “I’m quite a loner, so it’s my connection to the world and it gives me great pleasure,” he confided without taking his gaze from the work in hand.

“People underestimate slot machines,” he informed me, almost defensively, “Once they have paid, they pay attention, read the instructions and concentrate because they have invested and they want to get their money’s worth. So you’ve really captured your audience.”

“In the eighties, I had a brush with the Art world, but I prefer the notion that, rather than buy your work, people buy an experience,” he concluded, adding “and you don’t have to be sophisticated to enjoy it.”

All this time, Tim had been fiddling with an hydraulic system which caused the eyes to shoot out of a bust of Sigmund Freud but – at that moment – was failing to pull them back in again afterwards. Constructed of old timber, the device comprised an automated bedroom with dream figures popping up from inside the wardrobe and outside the window.

“The machines are the stars not me,” Tim declared when I exclaimed in wonder to see the mechanism spring into life, “I’m looking forward to when I can get back to my workshop.” I left him there playing with the dream machine and I rather envied him.

Tim Hunkin and his team deliver their Nuclear Reactor in Bloomsbury

Tim Hunkin and the Dream Machine

NOVELTY AUTOMATION at 1a Princeton St, Bloomsbury, WC1R 4 AX. Wednesdays 11am – 6pm, Thursdays 11am – 7pm, Fridays 11am – 6pm & Saturdays 11am – 6pm


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At Tim Hunkin’s Workshop

3 Responses leave one →
  1. joan permalink
    August 26, 2015

    Since you posted this piece Novelty Automation have welcomed a new machine, The Small Hadron Collider, which gives the visitor the opportunity to win a Nobel Prize. Ours is proudly attached to our fridge along with photos from The Expressive Photo Booth. So many reasons to visit Mr Hunkin’s arcade.

  2. Alphonse Credenza permalink
    August 27, 2015

    I just loved this article and spent some time at Tim’s site! I’ll make the museum and Spitalfields my next stop. Yours, from Texas. Alphonse Credenza

  3. Katya permalink
    August 27, 2015

    Wonderful inventor, scientist, fantasist, artist, visionary. I’ll wager Nick Park is a fan. So enjoyable to read about this man and to get a glimpse of his creations.

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