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30 November 2015

Tim Hunkin's Novelty Automation

THE ENGINEER AND cartoonist Tim Hunkin has opened an arcade in London full of his entertaining contraptions titled Novelty Automation. It’s in former shop premises at 1a Princeton Street, just a few minutes’ walk from Holborn tube station, and well worth visiting.

I first came across Hunkin’s arcade about ten years ago when it was at Southwold on the Suffolk coast. It was a chance discovery and more than made up for the failure earlier in the day to find the visitor centre at the Sizewell nuclear power station. That’s because there isn’t a visitor centre, only a car park watched by security cameras and armed members of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary.

Since sound has an important role in all amusement arcades, I thought it might be worth recording the noises of some of Hunkin’s arcade machines now they’re in London. He kindly gave me permission to do so.

After getting some gold-coloured Novelty Automation coin tokens, I started by feeding them into the air-powered Autofrisk.

Next was Pet Or Meat, an electromechanical version of the old spin-the-bottle game where chance apparently decides the fate of a little lamb.

Inside a wire cage crouches the rabid dog of the Test Your Nerve Machine. “It’s quite loud,” warned Lizzie, who was minding the arcade that afternoon. It was, and there’s another surprise which is felt rather than heard, and which you’ll need to try for yourself.

The sonic star of the arcade is the Small Hadron Collider, a pin-table version of its Geneva cousin. Luck, or maybe quantum entanglement, was on my side that afternoon, as I managed to hit a winning peg.

There are around a dozen more machines in Novelty Automation, all of them informed by Hunkin’s satirical and sometimes mordant humour. This is a hallmark of the tradition of devising what we might call contraptions, machines whose primary function is to entertain through some form of mockery.

The target can be mechanism itself, as with W. Heath Robinson’s over-specified imaginary devices, or the ‘useless machines’ built by the scientists Claude Shannon and Marvin Minsky. Their function is simply to switch themselves off each time someone switches them on; Arthur C. Clarke described them as ‘unspeakably sinister’. Here’s a video of modern-day one in action or, rather, avoiding action:

Humorously pointless contraptions were also a feature of the 1951 Festival of Britain, and in the historical section of the London Sound Survey you can hear the sounds of a smoke-grinding machine.

 

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