W. Heath Robinson

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William Heath Robinson (signed as W. Heath Robinson, 31 May 1872 – 13 September 1944) was an English cartoonist and illustrator, best known for drawings of eccentric machines.

In the UK, the term "Heath Robinson" has entered the language as a description of any unnecessarily complex and implausible contraption, similar to "Rube Goldberg" in the U.S.

Contents

Career

William Heath Robinson was born into a family of artists in Islington, London. His father and brothers Thomas Heath Robinson and Charles Robinson were all illustrators. His early career was as a book illustrator for, among others, Hans Christian Andersen's Danish Fairy Tales and Legends (1897); The Arabian Nights, (1899); Tales From Shakespeare (1902), and Twelfth Night (1908), Andersen's Fairy Tales (1913), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1914), Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1915), and Walter de la Mare's Peacock Pie (1916).

In the course of this however he also wrote and illustrated two children's books, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902) and Bill the Minder (1912), which are regarded as the start of his career in the depiction of unlikely machines. During the First World War he drew large numbers of cartoons, collected as Some "Frightful" War Pictures (1915), Hunlikely! (1916), and Flypapers (1919), depicting ever-more-unlikely secret weapons being used by the combatants.

He also produced a steady stream of humorous drawings, for magazines and advertisements. In 1934 he published a collection of his favourites as Absurdities, such as:

  • "The Wart Chair. A simple apparatus for removing a wart from the top of the head"
  • "Resuscitating stale railway scones for redistribution at the station buffets"
  • "The multimovement tabby silencer", which automatically threw water at serenading cats

Most of his cartoons have since been reprinted many times in multiple collections.

The machines he drew were frequently powered by steam boilers or kettles, heated by candles or a spirit lamp and usually kept running by balding, bespectacled men in overalls. There would be complex pulley arrangements, threaded by lengths of knotted string. Robinson's cartoons were so popular that in Britain the term "Heath Robinson" is used to refer to an improbable, rickety machine barely kept going by incessant tinkering. (The corresponding term in the U.S. is Rube Goldberg, after an American cartoonist with an equal devotion to odd machinery. Similar "inventions" have been drawn by cartoonists in many countries, with the Danish Storm Petersen being on par with Robinson and Goldberg.)

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