Q From Sarah Wylie: In my office someone said they had a Heath Robinson solution to a problem, to the complete confusion of the international members of the team. Can you tell me who was Heath Robinson, and was everything he did makeshift and temporary?
A Never. No drawing William Heath Robinson created was ever either of those things. He was a wonderful illustrator, who seemed to be able to ease himself into the spirit of a work in a magical way: as just one example, those for an edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1914 were superb.
His enduring fame, and the reason why his name entered the language during his lifetime, was a result of the other side of his work — comic drawings. The typical Heath Robinson creation was of some machine for carrying out a whimsical purpose, such as one to train cat burglars, or stretch spaghetti, or put square pegs into round holes. These meticulously conceived and magnificently executed drawings were miracles of ineffective ingenuity. Every participant was clearly intent on serious purposes while managing some aspect of an absurdly over-complicated construction of magnets, pulley wheels and conveyor belts, all linked and controlled by lengths of knotted string. Nothing in his creations was pristine. Every part of his daft machines told of regular use over a long period, often patched or amateurishly repaired. He said that a large part of the joke came from the style that showed the artist had complete belief in what he was drawing.
Something Heath Robinson, meaning a device that was simultaneously absurdly ingenious and impracticable, became services slang during the First World War, as a result of a series of cartoons in which he mocked the enemy (such as harnessing the German army to a goose to teach it to goose-step). The Dictionary of National Biography remarks of these cartoons: “The Germans (wearing the uniforms of the Franco-Prussian War) invented ‘frightful’ means of teasing, discomfiting or embarrassing our troops who (looking scarcely less ridiculous) confounded them.”
In the USA, the equivalent is a Rube Goldberg device, a term that dates from the 1930s. Goldberg created essentially the same kind of unnecessarily complicated device for carrying out some simple task, though — as befits a trained engineer — his were practical, albeit weirdly convoluted. However, his draughtsmanship doesn’t begin to compare with that of the classically trained Heath Robinson.