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At Tim Hunkin’s Workshop

May 14, 2015
by the gentle author

Tim Hunkin at work on his Small Hadron Collider

Apart from the brief trauma of getting locked in the lavatory, it was a relatively uneventful rail journey from Liverpool St up to Suffolk to visit the workshop of Engineer & Cartoonist Tim Hunkin beside the estuary of the river Blythe. A bumpy ride in Tim’s van along the pot-holed track only served to heighten my expectation as we arrived at the water’s edge, where a vast expanse of mud stretched to the horizon reflecting the dramatic East Anglian sky.

A statue of Michael Faraday, parked beside an enormous clock face, a hen coop and a giant pocket calculator, welcomes you the world of Tim Hunkin. Since 1976, Tim has lived here in a cottage at the end of a long brick farmhouse and worked in a series of venerable black weatherboarded sheds. “Back then, The Observer agreed to pay my train fare to London once a fortnight,” he explained, “and that meant I was able to leave London and come to live out here.”

For decades, Tim contributed his Rudiments of Wisdom cartoon strip to the Sunday magazine, but gradually the slot machines took over and now he has two arcades of them – The Under the Pier Show in Southwold and the newly-opened, Novelty Automation in Holborn.

It was a humbling experience to enter the lair of the great inventor and observe him at work. All around were fragments of mechanical devices and intriguing pieces of junk that might one day contribute to one of his creations. Over nearly forty years, Tim has got everything nicely organised, with a wood workshop, a metal workshop, an engineering shop, all kinds of machines, and vast stocks of timber, metal and other stuff.

In spite of the apparent chaos, it is obvious that Tim knows where everything is and can lay his hand upon anything he might require at a moment’s notice. “I’m happiest when I am here in my workshop,” he confided to me and I was startled by the beauty of this unlikely factory, surrounded by trees coming into blossom and all the lush plant growth at the beginning of summer.

The premise of my visit was to view Tim’s latest invention, his Small Hadron Collider which is being unveiled at Novelty Automation in London today and you can go along to try for yourself from tomorrow. Conceived as a satire upon the bizarre world of Particle Physics, it is a based upon a seventies Japanese Patchinko machine that Tim imported from America.

After taking it apart and putting it back together again, Tim created various functions of his own devising and added flip signs with slogans from the world of Quantum Dynamics. Thus Tim’s machine permits even the entirely uneducated individual to have a lot of fun ‘playing’ at Particle Physics and, with only a modicum of application, it is possible to win a Nobel Prize. Who ever dreamed that Scientific Theory could offer such idle amusement?

Whenever Tim finds himself at a loose end or in need of inspiration, he jumps into his old van, negotiates the bumpy track and drives over to enjoy the laughter of visitors at his arcade on the pier at Southwold. I had the privilege of accompanying him that day and, even on a weekday in early summer, we discovered a lively throng. Most remarkable to me was the woman who took a break from walking her dogs to enjoy the dog-walking machine while her patient husband stood holding the leads. Dumbstruck with wonder, I stood contemplating the profound implication of this curious spectacle.

This woman loved walking her dogs so much that she could not resist Tim’s dog-walking machine which offered a virtual experience of equal or superior quality to actual dog-walking. It was the perfect metaphor of our paradoxical relationship with technology and a personal triumph for Tim.

To the Amusements

Tim solves a problem in Quantum Dynamics on his laptop

Tim searches for a screw

Tim demonstrates his metal pressing machine from Clerkenwell

Tim enjoys a thoughtful moment outside his workshop on the estuary of the river Blythe

At Southwold Pier

A woman takes a break from dog walking

Tim’s water clock

Southwold seen from the pier

NOVELTY AUTOMATION at 1a Princeton St, Bloomsbury, WC1. Wednesdays 11am – 6pm, Thursdays 11am – 7pm, Fridays 11am – 6pm & Saturdays 11am – 6pm

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Tim Hunkin, Cartoonist & Engineer

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Robert Green permalink
    May 14, 2015

    I like Tim, if only there were more people like him in the world it would be an altogether nicer and infinitely more interesting place, I must re visit the exhibition at Bloomsbury to see the new machine.

  2. May 14, 2015

    A mechanical genius !

    Love & Peace

  3. May 14, 2015

    What a wonderful man Tim is, a clever inventor with a sense of humour, a rare thing! Love all his works, and the dog walking machine is a hoot! Valerie

  4. May 14, 2015

    Immensely heartening! Good to see the spirit of English invention and single minded enthusiasm still hale and hearty in the East! Must plan trips to see the creations. Regards Thom.

  5. anne gray permalink
    May 14, 2015

    So glad the GA sometimes leaves his fascinating corner of London. even if it means being albeit briefly locked in the lavatory. and specially glad when he visits Suffolk and Tim in his workshops. Glimpses of Spitalfield Life everyday draws me down south from time to time and I will certainly go to Bloomsbury soon as a quantum physics beginner to have a go at the Collider. It takes a lot to prise me from Suffolk….but anything that mixes invention humour and Tim must be worth a trip.

  6. Ian permalink
    May 14, 2015

    Living in Ipswich as I do means I’m a frequent visitor to Southwold, and to the pier in particular. So it’s a pleasure to learn about the genius behind the water clock and the quirky attractions which are sometimes so crowded it’s impossible to get in to see them!

    Thanks for this entry (even if you did get stuck in the toilet, unlike my friend who was suddenly exposed to the carriage as the door opened by itself mid-pee.)

  7. May 14, 2015

    What a nice fellow he is! Genius and fun.

  8. Chris O. permalink
    March 31, 2021

    Not only a nice guy, but a mentor…. if that’s even possible for someone you never met. I am inspired by him and his work and have begun introducing his shows from back in the day, to my young son whom I hope will get as much out of his shows as I did. I hope he continues to show us how things works in ways only he can and inspire newer generations.

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