More Than Complicated Contraptions


Heath Robinson is an adjective in our language defined as ingeniously or ridiculously over-complicated in design or construction, as in a vast Heath Robinson mechanism. Our dictionaries owe this to the works of William Heath Robinson (13th May 1872 to 13th September 1944). He was the youngest of three brothers. Like their father, all became excellent illustrators.

William is best known for his humorous and ingenious drawings of complicated contraptions. He was, however, also one of the best of his generation of superb practitioners of his art. In addition to his cartoon work, he illustrated other people’s books;  those he wrote himself; posters; and magazines.

It was during the First World War that the term “Heath Robinson” entered the U.K.’s popular language ‘as a description of any unnecessarily complex and implausible contrivance, much as “Rube Goldberg machines” came to be used in the United States from the 1920s onwards as a term for similar efforts. “Heath Robinson contraption” is perhaps more often used in relation to temporary fixes using ingenuity and whatever is to hand, often string and tape, or unlikely cannibalisations. Its continuing popularity was undoubtedly linked to Britain’s shortages and the need to “make do and mend” during the Second World War.’ (Wikipedia)

As featured yesterday, along with Elizabeth, Jackie and I visited an exhibition of his work held at Mottisfont. The whole range of his oeuvre was on display.

W. Heath Robinson illustration

The final British attack of 1916’s Battle of The Somme was that of The Ancre. Heath Robinson’s drawings, such as this one featuring his idea of German listening posts, did much to sustain the spirits of English soldiers during The Great War.

W. Heath Robinson illustration

Towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries there were still very mixed feelings about blocks of flats (apartments). Some doubted their safety. This was one of our artist’s views on the subject.

W. Heath Robinson illustration

He also advocated ‘Inventing at home’.

Among others, William illustrated Hans Andersen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Song of The English, The Water Babies, and Old Time Stories (Bluebeard is featured here).

Those of his own books include Bill The Minder.

Some of the exhibits were paintings he produced for his own pleasure.

W. Heath Robinson illustration

Nash’s is an example of his magazine work. Note that, the Christmas Number for 1929 cost 1/6d which is the equivalent of just seven and a half pence today. The current issue of The New Yorker costs $8.99.

This afternoon I received an e-mail from BT announcing that they have refunded the over-payment they took last month and I am now in credit.

Jackie produced an extremely tasty meal of beef with creamy mashed potato, soft peppers and mushrooms in red wine; with crisp cauliflower; tender cabbage and leeks, for our dinner this evening. She felt, erroneously, that she had ruined the meal by forgetting carrots for colour. I thought the yellow peppers did the job. I finished the Tempranillo brought back from the pub yesterday.


70 responses to “More Than Complicated Contraptions”

  1. As a child I often saw Heath Robinson cartoons in newspapers and I recall my favourite aunt poring over them and chuckling as she worked them out – I guess it was a gererational thing as she had lived through the first world war and I wasn’t born til after the second….. I did have a copy of the Water Babies illustrated by him and still recall how fascinating I found them.

  2. I remember my dad introducing me to Heath Robinson (not literally – I mean, his ingenious contraptions), but I doubt many people under 60 will recognise his name today. Love the drawings – I didn’t know his work was so broad. I hate (and I really mean ‘hate’) dealing with BT – it is the most frustrating, irritating, organisation and has no respect whatsoever for its customers – but in fairness some of its staff aren’t rude ill-educated morons and the engineers are generally great. Since you’ve mentioned food and drink, I’m having a ready meal and heading to the pub… πŸ™‚

  3. Jackie’s meal looks delicious and certainly colourful enough for me. I enjoyed the Heath Robinson viewing too. Will Jackie be having one of those potato peeling machines in the new kitchen? πŸ˜‰

  4. Lovely to see some original Heath Robinson contraptions.
    I should have taken a picture of one I invented today. The front gate pillar is leaning so the bolt no longer goes into the hole. I put a piece of timber in between the pillar and the wall on the other side above head height, and hammered in a wedge thus forming a lintel pushing the pillar upright again..

  5. We have a small word for temporary fixes using ingenuity and whatever is to hand, often string and tape, or unlikely cannibalisations: it’s called Jugaad. Those are fascinating sketches. I wonder how Mr Robinson would have drawn BT people!

  6. As I was reading, I thought your Heath Robinson verbiage sounded like our Rube Goldberg, which you then mentioned. Here’s another one, “MacGyver”; based on a TV show where the guy fixes problems by making things out of weird items he happens to have. It’s actually used as a verb, as in “I Macgyvered” the plumbing and now the toilet flushes when I do the dishes.

    Tell Jackie that is a luscious dinner – the greens and gravy give plenty of color & there are plenty of veggies. No carrots needed.

  7. The pictures are really priceless–I love the pointy hat on the guy pushing the listening post round. I’ve always liked the Rube Goldberg pictures too. Thanks for the tour through some of Heath Robinson.

  8. Jodie made points I was going to make about both Macgyver and Jackie’s meal, the latter of which looks utterly delicious. In our house, we even have a saying when we need to be creative and not much is at hand: “Think, Macygyver, think.” Thanks so much for introducing me to Heath Robinson. I really enjoyed looking at the work you posted, and I bet the exhibit was terrific.

  9. Thank you for the tour and introduction to Heath Robinson, Derrick! We could use more make do and mend in life.

    Jackie’s meal, looks wonderful! I sometimes use nasturtium blooms for color when they are in season.

  10. I love Heath Robinson’s work. I once set my wordwork class to construct a machine that was started by a marble and ended with a flame thrower igniting a photograph of me.Each group of three boys built some part and they all had to interconnect. Maybe I’ll describe it one day.

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