Heath Robinson’s absurdly ingenious world
Despite being a celebrated and serious artist in his own right, the distinctly non-technical William Heath Robinson was to become famous for his absurd drawings of imaginary contraptions and machines, making him a household name in the world of engineering. Here, we find out why.
Not many engineers’ names pass into the language as a generic term, but when they do, such as with Dyson, you can bet it’s because their inventions are destined to become classics. Yet, the name Heath Robinson has become a household term to apply to over-engineered contraptions – typically with dozens of cogs and miles of knotted string – usually to comical or satirical effect. We think of a ‘Heath Robinson’ device as something that, while fixing a genuine engineering conundrum, is absurd, over-complicated and impractical. In fact, it’s the opposite of Occam’s Razor (a medieval problem-solving principle, which says that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected).
Simple is good. Complicated is bad. It’s almost as if Heath Robinson had either never heard of, or had wilfully decided to flip the razor. His world works in a surreal and ornately ingenious way (incidentally, the word ‘ingenious’, if you go back far enough, is linguistically related to both ‘engine’ and ‘genius’). Yet, all his machines and contraptions faithfully obey engineering logic, of sorts.
Born in 1872, William Heath Robinson initially worked as a book illustrator, and first turned to humorous art in the Edwardian era, continuing until his death in 1944. He was the pictorial equivalent of PG Wodehouse, inhabiting a sphere where unpleasantries such as the Great War never really happened. While Wodehouse was more interested in producing comic satire of the British aristocracy in prose, Heath Robinson was much more concerned with the working man. His characters are nearly always middle-aged, rotund and balding, in contrast to their creator, who was skinny with a fine head of hair.
“These characters are also very earnest,” says Adam Hart-Davis, author of ‘Very Heath Robinson’, a sumptuously illustrated and often hilarious coffee table tome celebrating the life and work of the great illustrator. “None of them ever laugh because what they are doing in factories is very serious.”
Factories play an important role in Heath Robinson’s orbit, not because they bore much resemblance to the emerging car manufacturing production lines, but ironically because they didn’t. “During the time Heath Robinson was drawing his contraptions, the production line had really started to kick in.” Henry Ford’s eponymous Model T assembly line of 1913 had managed to reduce the time it took to build a car from 12-and-a-half hours to a shade over an hour-and-a-half. “Yet Heath Robinson had problems believing that, and so in his one drawing of a production line, which is making Christmas crackers, we can see that it is all very silly.”
At a time when manufacturing was powered by steam and increasingly by electricity, the energy in Heath Robinson’s factories is supplied by men winding handles or pushing pedals. “So there would be one chap powering an entire asbestos factory. Completely idiotic. But that’s exactly how he saw it.”
According to Hart-Davis, one of the reasons we find Heath Robinson’s work so fascinating today is that the illustrations were both for fun and serious social commentary. Back in the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had spawned the rise of factories and mines, while agriculture was increasingly done by machines. “The people had all moved to the cities, finding themselves crammed into small living spaces. What Heath Robinson did was to point a finger at this, saying ‘this is stupid, but here’s how to get around it’. There’s one glorious drawing of people living in blocks of flats facing each other, playing golf and tennis from their balconies. This is social comment. But it is also just for fun.”
This sense of fun turned into commercial work for the artist, with factories of the day, especially in the food processing industry, commissioning Heath Robinson, who had cut his creative teeth at the Royal Academy of Arts, to illustrate their brochures. Crawford’s biscuits, Hovis bread, Domecq sherry all employed his talents. When it came to working with cement manufacturer G & T Earle in Wilmington, north of Hull, he visited the site and reinterpreted the industrial process as a human one in typical meticulous and absurd detail.
“Cement isn’t very exciting,” says Hart-Davis. “But Heath Robinson was gobsmacked by what he saw. I’ve been to the same cement works 100 years later and it hasn’t changed much.” The way in which Heath Robinson humanised the process was to replace the vast furnace with a small hearth and a mantel with a cat sitting in front of it. “It’s just silly. On top of this enormous machine there’s the boss’s wife hanging out the washing. He was just making fun of the whole thing. But they loved it, which is why he kept going back to these places.”
Hart-Davis remembers growing up with a house full of some 20,000 books, most of which were serious (his father Sir Rupert Hart-Davis was a book publisher), with the odd exception. Such exceptions included the works of Heath Robinson, which Hart-Davis junior found funny as well as absurd. Yet the big question was always “would these contraptions work? You look at these complicated machines and if you look at them very carefully, generally, despite the absurdity, they are feasible. Certainly no engineer would ever attempt to solve these problems in the same way. But it is very joyful to see a silly way of logically solving them, which is why I think engineers to this day are so fond of these pictures.” There’s a one-piece chromium tube kitchen table and chair set that is as mesmerising as any of Escher’s optical illusions. “That’s right. You have to follow the tubing around to see if it works. Would it be possible to do that?”
Hart-Davis is also convinced that Heath Robinson anticipated some of the technical achievements of the modern world. While the Channel Tunnel had been on the engineering horizon since at least the 19th century, construction wasn’t successfully attempted until 1988 when 11 tunnel boring machines were deployed to produce the ‘Chunnel’ that opened to rail passengers in 1994. Yet it was Heath Robinson, in his ‘Secret History of the Channel Tunnel’ who, decades before, anticipated some of the issues at stake, albeit fancifully. There is a cartoon of engineers undertaking an early prefabrication experiment in a small mill pond using wooden barrels, while later in the series, the image of ‘a well-known magnate of the port of Dover laying the foundation stone’ in his bathing suit and jumping into the sea is, to use Hart-Davis’s favourite word again, ‘silly’. Once completed, the tunnel would of course leak, but rather than being inundated with water, only the occasional fish would descend through holes in the roof onto the hapless train drivers beneath.
Of all the Heath Robinson contraptions in his book, Hart-Davis’s favourite is the machine “that solves the problem for once and for all of conveying green peas to the mouth”, where a butler is seen feeding the peas into a boiler, from where they are fed into a hopper and then to a conveyor and, finally, to a spoon that delivers them to the predictably fat, bald and middle-aged male diner. “And – do you know what? – I think that it would almost work. But why? What was the problem that it solved? Well, back in the Victorian age, when the recipient of the peas was a lad, his mum would have made him eat peas from the back of a fork, which is impossible.” Hart-Davis thinks this sums up the quintessential spirit of the illustrator he so admires: “the pea-delivering machine is not really fulfilling any pressing need. But it is innovation in action, presented in the form of an elegant machine.”
It is the idea of the wonderful machine that makes Heath Robinson relevant today. “When you look at the cement works pictures, essentially the process isn’t any different now. The pictures are silly because people are powering the machines. But they were silly then. Where he did go over the top, however, was with aeroplanes and that is because when he was working, they were essentially new. There are wonderful pictures of flying trains with people sitting on the wings eating ice cream, which don’t really make sense. It was just his imagination going wild and therefore not in the same league as his contraptions such as the Ransomes lawn mowers.” These are central to the success of Heath Robinson as a comic artist because, despite the machinery simultaneously powering children’s toys and drying washing on a line attached to the clippings collector, they “fulfil a need. You perceive a need and you design a machine.”
If Heath Robinson were alive today, what aspect of modern technology would he be satirising? “Oh, I think he’d have fun with the trains being late, wrong leaves on the line and the wrong kind of snow. But actually, more than that, I think he’d enjoy drawing people with selfie-sticks with five iPads stuck onto them.”
‘Very Heath Robinson: Stories of his Absurdly Ingenious World’ is now out from the Sheldrake Press, £40